More thoughts, also illness-addled and pseudoephedrine-fuelled.

Reflections on Anthologized Recordings: The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records and the John A. and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip on the Library of Congress American Memory Website (vol 4, issue 2, 2002 of Echo) by Anthony Seeger

I’ve been doing a bit of writing and thinking about ethnographic music research (mostly because I’ve never quite resolved my own qualms about ethnographic research practice from my own work), and have come across this interesting article about the Lomax anthologised collections. I was especially interested in the comments about how anthologies might work in a digital environment.

I’m a big fan of the work by editors, librarians, DJs and other folk who develop curated collections of works. I like exploring the connections someone else has made between individual items. I don’t think ‘the album is dead’, but I do think we’re living in a time when strategic organisation and curatorship of art (especially music) can be quite exiting.

But then, I’m a DJ, so I would say that.

I don’t buy the argument that DJing isn’t as creatively worthy as recording or playing music yourself. I just think that DJing – as with other forms of thoughtful curatorship – is a different type of creativity.

This is probably why I’m fascinated by that picture of Slim Gaillard DJing. He was such an unusual person, was as likely to tell you a completely made up story about his life as a ‘true’ one, I reckon his DJing would have been great. And I bet he did things like talk over tracks, interrupt songs and other DJing badnaughtywrongs.

Things I would like to read:

  • A critical discussion of the New Orleans jazz revival movement in the US and in Australia (ie not just some awful ‘jazz journalism’ style ‘history’, but an actual engagement with the politics and ideology of these projects
  • A critical engagement with the Folkways and Lomax projects (particularly stuff on the New Deal projects)
  • A critical history of jazz associations in Australia (again, not just another fansquee written in that awful ‘jazz journalism’ style).

…and more.

I also want to look at how Black Power Mixtape (which is a collection of footage taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960s, edited together and with a commentary by modern black activist folk and accompanied by a modern sound track) is related to all that Music Inn/Stearns’ Jazz Dance work with Al and Leon.
…part of my brain is also thinking about the French reception to and feelings about Australian Aboriginal art and the Utopia community.

Edit:

This piece Reflections on Anthologized Recordings: The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records and the John A. and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip on the Library of Congress American Memory Website (vol 4, issue 2, 2002 of Echo) by Anthony Seeger is an interesting start. I was especially caught by the discussion of the future of anthologies in a digital environment.

The name Seeger catches my eye for a number of reasons, but most recently for its association with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band:

Edit 2:

I need to follow up this panel discussion on ‘Teaching Controversial Topics in American History‘ in Echo (6.2)

Edit 3:

I’ve just seen This review of John Szwed’s book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World which may be useful. Szwed is pretty good stuff, but I’ll have to read the book to see.

How to write reviews

I’ve done quite a bit of reviewing over the last fifteen years or so, mostly for the freebies, but also for the writing and publishing practice. Usually in academic journals, but writing for other sources more recently. I’ve reviewed all sorts of things – books, films, television shows, academic conferences, lindy exchanges, websites, software, CDs, music concerts, dance awards ceremonies (that was a weird one), and at one point a whole series of different circuses.

Writing reviews is a real skill, one I don’t really have. You have about 300 words to write something useful (it has to help punters decide whether to go/read/watch), something honest, something kind, and something entertaining. Yes, all in about 300 words. If it’s for an academic journal you have to prove that you actually know something about the topic. If it’s for more general publications, it’s more important that you’re useful to the reader.

As you’ve probably realised, I have trouble with the succinct. That’s ok when you’re doing long reviews for publications. But it’s not much use for publicists looking for a little something for a blurb, or a punter who just wants to know whether they should drop $20 on a CD. So I’m always looking for tips on how to refine the way I write reviews.

I’m going to try to list some useful review-writing references here:

Terry Teachout’s “TT: Thou shalt”

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s excellently useful ‘…and a bad-bad review…’

[NB That’s a photo of Dorothy Parker up there. She’s who most reviewers like to think they are.]

The ordinaryness of the everyday and blues dance

In a post on FB, Chris asks

Charm’s Question of the 1st of June:
Blues dance draws from a rich cultural well, a constant evolution of the dance and rapid socio-economic changes.

What elements of vintage Blues dance culture (sordid and scandalous though they may be) need to be incorporated into the modern dance form while coupled with more professional dance training?

Disappointingly, I think I’m more interested in children’s rhyming songs, skipping ropes and household chores.

I read this as I was writing that last post The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology, so I ended up replying to Chris with this fairly off-topic and annoyingly preachy comment:

I have some troubles with the way ‘professional dance training’ is often defined or practiced.
I don’t accept the premise of this question: that ‘professional dance training’ (as it is defined and practiced in most of the modern swing/blues/whatevs world) is an integral part of blues dancing or learning to dance. I’d probably ask ‘how might dance pedagogy and learning dance (the two are not necessarily codependent) today draw on the history of blues dance (and music)?’ or, in SamTalk: “What can I use from the history of blues dance to become a moar orsm dancer?”

I’m actually very interested in dance as a point on continuum of everyday rhythmic movement, rooted in history and culture (which I think dance is often separated from by ‘professional dance training’).
So I like to chase down ideas about moving your body in rhythmic ways which aren’t necessarily dancing. It’s about training your brain and training your body.
eg I think this video is a good tool for thinking about and physically learning about rhythm, swing, delay, etc: http://youtu.be/2vy0dMXhlWI
This one for thinking about rhythm, timing and performance: http://vimeo.com/20853149
Or this one for ideas about rhythm, partnership and athleticism: http://youtu.be/bDOBcBKRENw

It’s an interesting question, because it’s actually asking (I think):

How can we use history (of blues dance and music) in modern teaching practice?

Which is almost exactly the question I ended up asking in that last post (The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology). How do we use history in modern dance teaching? This is something I’ve written heaps about. Heaps and heaps. I’ve gotten angry about the way some dancers and teachers insist on male/female partnerships because ‘that’s how it was in the old days’ (yes, there were male/female partnerships in the old days, but ALSO LOTS OF SAME SEX PARTNERSHIPS). I’ve gotten angry about dancers and teachers insisting that we should wear vintage clothing (shoes, dresses, suits, whatEver) because ‘that’s how it was in the olden days’ and ‘it makes you dance more better’. My standard response, at a higher level is ‘I can dig historical stuff, but I don’t want to recreate all of the history. I like having access to a good doctor, a dentist, clean drinking water, the right to own property and fucking awesome running shoes.

So I reckon we can assume that ‘just recreating’ the past isn’t really what we want to do. Well, it’s not what I want to do. That last post began to explore how I think about using history in teaching actual dance movements: I am unsure and still figuring things out.

As a dancer myself, I use historic photos, stories, footage and music to help me think about how to move my body, and what my body looks like.

  • In Things I want to talk about: #dance I mentioned the way I use historical dance to empower me, as a woman dancer.
  • I’ve started thinking about costume (specifically wearing menswear, as a woman) lately in posts like Totes dandy worthy, right? (helped along by fellow dandy-philes and peeps like lindy shopper who did this sweet post How to be a lady dandy).
  • I talked about learning solo dance as empowering in I vant to be alone.
  • And I found the Women’s History Month posts from 2011 very exciting, because they gave me a chance to focus on women dancers through history, finding excellent role models, but also excellent examples of different types of dancing bodies to learn from.
  • And then I’m really into copying male dancers (like Al Minns or Frankie Manning) as a way of playing with gender as a woman.
  • I’m also 100% into learning historic solo jazz routines, not only to develop my dancing skills, but also to furnish me with a wider, more historically grounded repertoire of moves. And these moves, of course, teach me how to move, and how to think about movement in more sophisticated ways. Mostly because, those olden days dancers? They were fucking hardcore, and everything we do today is pissweak in comparison.

In all these examples, historical footage, photos and stories are really important to how I think about learning to dance, how I think about choreography, how I think about music and how I think about getting DOWN on the dance floor. I can borrow from history (textual poaching, yo!), but I don’t have to seek to recreate it exactly.

So in that response to Chris’s question on FB, I wanted to side-step a discussion of formal teaching processes by referring to LeeEllen Friedland’s discussion of a continuum of cultural practice.

I can’t find a copy of her article online, so I had to look it up in my thesis notes. This is what I wrote about learning to dance in vernacular dance cultures:

In vernacular dance culture, acquiring dance knowledge and learning to dance, developing “new steps” and becoming conversant with dance floor politics is not a formal process conducted in dance studios, but a matter of acquiring life skills particular to a community. Sheenagh Pietrobruno argues that vernacular dance is created in a “lived context”, and is:

not formally learned but…passed on from generation to generation. Most people who grow up with the dance acquire it in childhood, its movements often taught indirectly through the corporeal language of the body, so that those raised with the dance may not have a sense that they have learned it. Dancing usually is done to music: there is no separation between the rhythm of the music and the steps of the dance (1).

Pietrobruno’s discussion of salsa is equally relevant to a discussion of African American vernacular dance, particularly as salsa – as a Cuban-identified dance – has strong cultural links with African American dance, as do many other vernacular dances of the Americas.

Pietrobruno introduces her discussion of teaching and learning salsa in Montreal by emphasising the position of vernacular dance within the everyday, and learning to dance as an everyday activity, rather than a ‘special’ event bracketed off into designated dance spaces. In this way vernacular dance across cultures is bound to live music and other vernacular cultural practice, it is communicated across generations and it is an extension of ‘wider cultural expression’:

The salsa that develops in a lived context involves more than a series of steps and turns: dancers execute movements with their entire bodies. The subtle, but essential elements of the dance, such as how dancers hold their bodies, move their heads, position their hands and isolate various body parts are rooted in motor control and movements that are extensions of wider cultural expression…A child may be formally taught specific footwork and turn patterns of salsa, but picks up body isolations by experiencing the family dance culture, similar to acquiring everyday gestures. Although these subtle separations of parts of the body may seem effortless to the outside viewer, their performance involves a great deal of skill and dexterity. Individuals of Latin descent, who are dispersed throughout the Americas, often learn the dance as an extension of their heritage (1).

Learning to dance in a vernacular dance culture is a process akin to learning to speak. Children acquire ‘vocabulary’ – dance moves – through imitating adults, through play, and everyday activities. The process of gaining discursive proficiency requires constant and everyday experiments with communication. Families, peers, and other groups and individuals in day to day life contribute to a child’s acquisition of dance skills.

Friedland explores the acquisition of dance skills in vernacular dance culture in greater depth in her article “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance”, where she discusses the role of dance in urban black children’s lives in Philadelphia. Though researched in the 1970s and 80s, Friedland’s work is as applicable to communities of dancers in the 1930s in Harlem as it is to black dance culture in Los Angeles today. Friedland makes several key points in her work. Firstly, and most importantly, she states that dance in African American communities is not segregated from everyday activity. Dance movement itself is part of a “complex of interrelated communicative and expressive systems that constitute a whole world of artistic performance” (138). These systems include body movement, sound (including music), visual forms (including drawing and wall art, costume and hair style), language (including slang, rap and poetry) and ‘attitude’ (including ethics, creativity, aesthetics and social behaviour). Participating in all these systems is central to black children’s lives, Friedland argues, and is, it is implied, equally as important to black adults.

This continuum of creative cultural practice, and the continuity of themes and interpretive and creative practices across media and practices is reflected in the cultural practices of contemporary swing dance communities. Study of contemporary swing dance culture suggests that the older a community, the more varied its inter-community networks, the more diverse its borrowing from other cultures, the more sophisticated its own cultural practices and shared systems of meaning. This point has directed my attention towards DJing, audio-visual media and dance pedagogy in contemporary swing dance culture, as an exploration of the ideological relationships between cultural practices and media use in a particular community. As Friedland suggests, systems of meaning in dance are not discrete. They are constructed intertextually, echoing broader ideological and discursive structures within that community.

It is therefore unsurprising to find vernacular dance, as part of a system of cultural practices connected by ideology and social networks, is not only ‘performed’ on stages, but also in competitions or even on the dance floors of balls or social dances. Friedland makes her second, and perhaps most important point, that dance and dance movement are part of everyday life and movement in vernacular dance, and that dance carries with it social and cultural meanings and relationships. Both Friedland and Pietrobruno therefore argue that ways of dancing are extensions of cultural ways of being. Friedland in particular extends Pietrobruno’s point that dance “movements …are extensions of wider cultural expression” (Pietrobruno 1). The discussion of dance movement as a subclass or an extension of the notion of ‘dancing’ in Friedland’s work encourages us to expand our conception of ‘dance’. Movement – ‘body language’ – is not simply a visual illustration of spoken language. Dance and rhythmic movement are part of a wider system of cultural production and communication as viable discourse and communication in themselves.

Dance and rhythmic movement are therefore as important in the African American culture Friedland describes as spoken and written language is in mainstream Australian culture. She discusses a range of categories of dance movement, from ‘being rhythmic’, to ‘dancing’ and ‘movement play’. These categories are seen as testing grounds for children’s developing ‘dance’ or ‘movement’ repertoire, and concurrently, their social and cultural repertoires. Friedland discusses black children’s ‘learning to dance’ as a process of enculturation, where children are not only taught formal steps from older children and adults, but also encouraged to move in particular ways, and to read the movements of others on particular terms. This approach encourages us to think of dance and movement not as innate or essential abilities, but as learned cultural expressions.

The mythic association of African Americans with ‘natural rhythm’ and expressions like ‘white men can’t jump’ (as discussed in Jade Boyd’s article “Dance, Culture, and Popular Film: Considering Representations in Save the Last Dance”) are reframed by Friedland’s work as racialised, essentialist statements about ethnic identity and culture. Dance discourse and ways of moving are learnt rather than innate. They are culturally determined. With this in mind, we can draw on a range of dance studies literature to make observations about how dance movement and dance culture cross-culturally function as discourse.

So, with all that in mind, I figure that to really understand blues and lindy hop and all those historical dances, you really have to think about everyday cultural context. As a white, middle class woman living in Sydney in the 21st century, I’m never going to be able to truly recreate those original cultural conditions. And it’s a bit silly to try, as I don’t want to, not even if it meant becoming a brilliant dancer. But it does mean that I’m very interested in childrens’ games and videos like Stop Clap Go:

I’m also interested in adaptations of children’s games like doubledutch in a postcolonial/multicultural/disapora context:

linky

And I think we can learn useful things about rhythm from everyday movements and activities:

(linky)

References
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 – 57.

Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista mexicana de estudios canadienses, Vol. verano, No. 3, Jan. 2002, pp. 23-56.

The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology

Once again, Bug’s Question of the Day has my brain working.

Recently there was a paper published in Research and Dance Education on “frame matching” where it is proposed that there is a “universal” methedology of lead/follow that can apply to all partner dances.

http://www.joeandnelle.com/assets/frame_matching_and_pted_by_joe_demers.pdf

However is it really Universal? I often hear complaints from blues dancers about “Lindy Connection”, and likewise from Lindy Hoppers about how “heavy” blues connection is.

Likewise, some say that the concepts of frame matching are different for different dances anyhow.

So, do the concepts of frame matching really apply universally to all partner dances?
Do these efforts help codify Lindy and Blues at least to the level of tango, or at least is a step in the right direction?
Or is it simply another step in the evolution of partner dancing in the swing/blues genres?

Wednesday 30th May

(full article reference: DeMers, Joseph Daniel, “Frame matching and APTD: a framework for teaching Swing and Blues dance partner connection,” Research in Dance Education (2012).)

I have lots and lots to say about this article. But I can’t fit them all into one post. Well, I could, but this post is already reeeeally long for a blog post. Only 2.5 thousand words, which is way short for a journal article (~5000 words). So I (may) return to this topic later, in other posts. Or not.

Sadly, DeMers’ article triggered my ‘marker’s brain’. Reading this, I’d assume the author was an undergraduate or in the early stages of a postgraduate degree (in the arts or humanities). But the author has a background in science, education and educational psychology, so I should be a little easier on him, as those fields don’t pursue such rigorous approaches to critical inquiry. But if you’re publishing a journal article, you really need to step up, yo. There are some problems with written expression which occasionally obscure the author’s point. There are problems with the construction of the argument as well as with the communication of this argument: it is too simple, and does not exhibit sufficiently rigorous critical engagement with the topic.

In other words, it is thinking in short, straight lines, rather than around corners and back and forth. My background is in cultural studies, which is all about thinking round corners. Further, I was into feminist cultural studies, which is about thinking around corners, asking difficult questions and refusing to shut up when some fuckwit tells you you “think too much.” So I’m sorry, DeMers, but this is going to be a fairly close criticism of your piece. But, before I get into it, I need to ask: “should I read scholarship from the dance world the way I read academic articles?”

I think there’s a clear cultural divide between the way arguments are constructed and communicated in the university world and in the dance world. In the latter, consensus, cooperation and empathy are valued far more than a ‘right’ answer. I think that this is – largely – a result of the influence of Frankie Manning, a man who was determinedly disassociated from local scene politics. His emphasis on the idea that ‘for three minutes you are in love with your partner’, on ‘bowing to the queen of the world’ and on humility make it clear that he felt dance (‘as the happiest thing on earth’) is about peace and fraternity, not conflict. I’ve found this approach frustrating when reading about his responses to racism in the American south in the 30s and 40s in particular (because I do think dance is a vehicle for radical political resistance as well), but I also deeply admire it as a truly pacifist response to cultural and physical violence. What better way to combat hate, than with love?

Writing this response, I was struck by a conflict in the two methods of discursive engagement I’ve used in the past. In the academic world, a forceful, even aggressive tone was important as a woman writing in a patriarchal, highly regulated and heirachical discourse. But in the dance world, where a harsh word or aggressive line has immediate real world consequences and runs in direct conflict with the ethos of international lindy hop ideology (ie Frankie would not have liked it). I’ve lately decided that one of the reasons I didn’t like academia very much was that it privileged aggressive, combative discourse. I feel that part of being a feminist is (to clumsily paraphrase Germaine Greer) to practice fraternity as a response to patriarchy.

So I’m going to try to do like Frankie did. But I’m also going to remember Norma Miller and her fury. Speak up, but be gentle. Mostly.

So let’s get to it. Let me engage with the article, point by point, with the fundamental premise of this article (this has gotten too long for just one post, so I’m just going to do one thing here).

The piece presents “frame matching” as a

codified theory of partner-dance connection (abstract, pg 1)

. Ok, yeah, that’s not such a problem. If you’re ok with the whole concept of ‘codified’ dance practice. In this context a ‘codified theory’ is a ‘set of theoretical rules or guidelines’. So this paper is establishing a set of rules for teaching and practicing partner dance, specifically in terms of connection (part of me wants to argue that there’s very little in partner dancing that isn’t about connection, whether you’re touching your partner or not). There are some useful aspects to this approach. As DeMers points out, adopting a code

…gives instructors a framework for creating a well-organized partner-dance curriculum, and gives them a means of assessing students’ working knowledge and execution of connection (pg 3)

This is such an appealing notion. Right now, as I’m trying to figure out exactly how I teach, and what I want to teach, the thought of a formal, fixed and reliable teaching tool kit is just so tempting. It’d be so much easier to just discover this foolproof, ‘right’ way of teaching the ‘right’ stuff. But this sort of approach also rings my alarm bells. I’ve done a heap of courses focussing on pedagogic practice in tertiary education over the years, and one of the most exciting ideas was that of the teacher as a guide to learning. Rather than adopting a ‘chalk and talk’ approach (where the teacher stands at the front of the room, dispensing knowledge), the student-centered class room sees the teacher (or tutor) as facilitating the student’s discovery of knowledge. Inherent to this approach is the idea that each student learns in different ways, and has different interests. By god that’s hard work. It’s really hard to work with thirty unique hoomans with thirty different ways of learning (all of which are changing constantly). Teaching would be SO MUCH EASIER if I could just pretend students were standardised units. And yet, that idea is also REALLY SCARY because it means that there’re also very wrong ways of teaching. PRESSURE!

Most usefully for me – as both a postgraduate learning to tutor and lecture and now as a dancer learning to teach dance – this student-centered model does not assume the teacher carries all the learnz around inside them. Rather, the teacher encourages and assists students in their discovery. For me, this means that I don’t have to be the cleverest person in the room, or the best dancer on the dance floor. I do have to be the person who manages the group, who guides the discussion of concepts and challenges (whether in verbal discursive exploration or in physical exploration), who encourages and supports new ideas and new ways of thinking. Granted, it’s fairly important for a teacher – in both a dance class and a university tutorial – to know a heap of things. But there will always come a point where the student reaches the edges of the teacher’s knowledge, ability, or experience.

For me, the most empowering thing I learnt about teaching was that it’s totally ok to say “I don’t know the answer to that. Why don’t we find out together?” It’s the same with dancing: I need to know some things, but it’s ok for me to reach a point at the limits of my physical ability or experience and then say “I don’t know why that works like that. Why don’t we find out together?” The delightful thing about dance is that it requires whole-bodied experimentation through play: lindy hop and swing music are all about having fun while learning stuff. One of the things I like most about lindy hop (and I extrapolate from DeMers’ work to assume that he feels his code can be used across the panopoly of jazz and swing era dances) is that it prioritises individual improvisation. Making stuff up. Breaking rules. But in a social way.

This is why I’m not entirely ok with the idea that we need a codified approach to dance practice or dance pedagogy. It presupposes a final, finite rule book for how we teach, how we learn, and how we dance. And that doesn’t sit well with me. I’d be heart broken to discover that everything there is to know about dance had already been written down. For me, the very best part of teaching has always been that moment when a student presents an idea that had never occurred to me (or anyone else), or moves their body in a way that is utterly unique. Suddenly I’m inspired and excited about teaching and learning. Hoomans are amazing: we are wonderful and surprising. I don’t want to forestall that with dancing rules.

In a practical sense, though, accepting that different teachers teach in different ways, and different students learn in different ways makes good financial and promotional sense. I work within a large dance scene with lots of teachers. I’ve realised that students don’t come to class and stay with that class just for the dance knowledge they’re developing. They come because they like that class’s culture (the people in the room, the way they interact, the physical space, the music, and so on and so on). In a market crowded with ‘dance experiences’, it makes sense to differentiate, to offer something unique. We are all teaching lindy hop (well, mostly… :D ), but we all teach in different ways.
The most powerful promotional tool we have at our disposal is the effective communication of that difference. Dancers’ best promotional tool is their own dancing body: we attract new students who see us dancing at public gigs; we attract existing dancers who want to learn ‘new’ things when they see us dancing in competitions or performances or on the social dance floor. But we also make extensive use of online, paper and face to face media and promotions. We have developed a language for selling our teaching, and this language is not politically or ideological neutral or ‘just descriptive’. The way we talk about dance and articulate what we feel in dance expresses the way we think about dance, and about our dance partners.

Arthur Murray’s pedagogic practices worked on a premise in direct opposition to this ‘diversity rocks’ idea. The assumption was/is that dance a) could be codified; and b) that it could be sold as a consistent, quality-controlled product in many different venues by many different people. It was a profoundly effective way of selling dance. But it was also a profoundly effective way of stifling individual creativity and the development of social dance practice as a living, breathing, changeable art.

I think about this approach as being the McDonalds approach to dance. Sure, you get the reassurance of consistent ‘food’, no matter where you are in the world, and the model ensures a high food safety standard. But that consistency has led to a preponderance of factory-farmed product where that quality is controlled by chemicals and cruel farming practices. The mundaneness of this consistency is countered with unnatural sensory experience: extra salt, extra sugar, extra fat, all efforts to replace the pleasures of a simple, authentic ‘flavour’ with artificial ‘taste’. Sometimes that’s how I feel about aerials: if your basic swingouts and footwork and rhythms are dull and pedestrian, you need air steps to make it interesting. This is why Skye Humphries and Todd Yannacone and Naomi Uyama and Ramona Staffeld and Frida Segerdahl and Lennart Westerlund are so amazing: they don’t need air to excite your palate (though they can certainly bring it if they need to).

I’m a big fan of the Montessori or free school learning and teaching model. I’d like to be able to encourage students to discover their own way of moving and expressing themselves, where they try to figure out what they love, and how they feel, and then work on expressing that with their bodies. There are physiological limits to what we can do with our bodies, but because all our bodies (and lifestyles) are unique, the bodies we work with are all unique. So the dancing we do, and the ideas that we have, are all unique. And that is what I think we should be working towards.

I have similar feelings about teaching dance. I recently organised a workshop weekend here in Sydney with some visiting teachers. We had one day of general workshops, and one day of ‘teacher training’. The teacher training was set up in two parts. One session where dancers worked on their own dancing specifically to improve their teaching (eg looking at how clearer lines or sharper footwork made it easier for students to see how the movement worked in demonstrations). The second session more a ‘skill share’ session where everyone shared their favourite teaching tools, asked specific questions about how other people taught particular things, and then experimented with these.

The presumption in this day of ‘teacher training’ was that the dancer/teachers involved were all skilled professionals with unique ways of working. The session was not to enforce a ‘preferred’ teaching code or to ‘improve the standard of teaching’, but to encourage reflexivity in teachers’ practices. To share ideas so that each teacher (and teaching partnership) could refine and develop their teaching practice in their own way. Inherent to this was the idea that teaching practice is mutable, flexible and responsive to the students’ needs, and to the teachers’ interests and needs. In other words, teaching different things in different ways to different people by different people. The end goal was of course unique pedagogic cultures and practices within the broader dance scene. Organic, gmo-free, visually unique, sensorily exciting.

I think the sessions went well, for a first-run. I had good feedback from participants (and I like to encourage all sorts of feedback), and from what I observed in the session, people enjoyed the experience. I do think that it takes time to learn how to participate in this sort of session, and that it takes a degree of trust: you need to trust your peers to support your ideas and not dismiss them. So I’d think that you’d really need to do this a few times to get the best results.

I have seen this approach used by other dance scenes and at other dance events. But my problem with some of those models is that though they ostensibly encourage individualised teaching practice and dance, they effectively maintain hierarchies and power. Most specifically, some of the people involved are established as ‘authorities’ and the collaborative setting is ultimately working to shore up the power of the organising person or ideologies. I’m certain this (inevitably, perhaps) happened in our setting this past weekend. But I’m hoping the organising ideology was ‘diversity and flexibility through collaboration’ not ‘uniformity and ‘correctness’ through collaboration.’
I do think that the best way to encourage a diverse, lalala learning environment is not to preach about it explicitly, but to sneak it into the process. So Herrang, for example, encourages dancers to interact in casual, friendly ways with old timers, with teachers, with each other not through formal ‘sessions for hiearchy-free interaction,’ but by setting up large communal eating areas where people share tables. I do think the shared table is an excellent metaphor for community, and it’s not just pragmatics that encourages many dance events to build meals into their programs.

Having said all that, part of me wants to know how can we do all this lovely hippy work and still be involved in a project of historical recreation and preservation? In a practical example, my teaching partner and I are currently figuring out exactly what type of swingout we want to teach to our class over the next month or so. We both have different preferences and ideas, but we’re both dance supernerds with an interest in biomechanics, a commitment to individual self expression, an emphasis on safety and pleasure, and we’re both guided by history. In a perfect world we’d work with the students to develop their awareness of their own bodies and and their basic skills so that they can choose how they dance their swingouts. In that same perfect world we’d introduce them to particular swingouts from lindy hop history, working with examples by particular dancers at different times. The ultimate goal would be to have each dancer being aware of what they’re doing in the swingout, and consciously choosing the way they move and respond to their partner. We both have particular favourites and dancers (both historic and contemporary) which we admire and want to emulate. But we also want our students to develop their own flavah flave.

The challenge, of course, is this: how do you actually run a class (or classes) which are historically grounded (and preserving/recreating lindy hop from the past) and also encouraging and allowing students to follow their own interests and personal creative instincts?

Interestingly, dance teachers like the Harlem/Rhythm Hot Shots are in an easier position: they are determinedly into historical preservation, and they position their classes and performances this way. They often say “This is our way of dancing a swing out, which we learnt from/modelled on Al Minns/Frankie Manning/Anne Johnson/Norma Miller, so we want you to learn to swingout this way.” The caveat is of course that once you’re done with the class you can just put aside that particular swingout and never do it again. But actually learning to dance precisely that way has taught you something about your body (and history) and more importantly, given you the ability to choose the swingout(s) you will do.
But my dilemma is this: how exactly do you do balance historical recreationism/preservation with student centeredness and principles of ‘natural’ movement and biomechanics in a weekly one-hour class that really has to be promoted in a clear, simple, accessible, totally-fun way, with a goal of maximum student numbers possible and mad dancing skillz? Week after week after week.

I guess the answer is that you don’t. Unless you really are a high-status, highly-skilled dancer like (my heroes) Asa Palm or Lennart Westerlund. In those cases what you are selling is historical accuracy, and students may choose to attend or not attend class. And as highly skilled, well respected dancers, students are likely to attend just because you’re teaching.
Or are they?
This is where we must balance pedagogic ideals with promotional and economic sustainability, individual creative self expression with historical preservation. To pull this stuff off, you just have to be one shit-hot teacher. Which is what the Hot Shots are: they are shit hot teachers and dancers.

Ok, so you can see, right here, that I’m going to have trouble with DeMers’ article. I can’t accept the basic premise of the thing: that there is a single codified theory for teaching connection, and that this is desirable, useful thing. I just don’t think that this is a useful approach: it doesn’t accommodate the complexity of hoomans in motion. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I discovered the other day that Al Minns used a swingout that didn’t involve triple steps. This makes me freak out a little in my brain, but it also makes me intensely curious. HOW EVEN DID IT WORK? If I rely on triple steps to generate and maintain momentum and stuff syncopation into a swingout, if I rely on triple steps for covering more ground, how did Al Minns and his partners achieve all these things without triple steps?! I NEED TO KNOW. I MUST ACQUIRE ALL THE LEARNZ.

That’s how I feel about this article. The basic premise unsettles me, but it also invites my engagement.

notes

John Lomax

Alan Lomax

Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Culture

The American folk music revival (NB the blues revival, and the American musicians touring Europe)

the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings

The Smithsonian folkways label