I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage with this topic. But you know, post-event boredom, feeling a bit bolshey. Time to ramp it up.
This is the sort of post that I get heaps of hate mail for. Usually with a few sooky comments by people telling me to:
– stop hating
– just relax
– be happy the dance is getting some exposure
– be thankful the community is getting ‘grown’.
But FUCK me.
…multiple forms of the dance that was created in late 1920s Harlem by Frankie Manning are growing ever more popular (source)
I had a quick look at this book the other day in the book shop, and I was pretty unimpressed. Nice type, nice photos, nice etc etc. Entirely lacking in substance. Reminded me very much of this 2009 book:
But honestly. Fucking HONESTLY. Whoever wrote the blurb for this book needs to:
a) find out who Frankie Manning was, and what he did (tip, he didn’t create ‘swing dancing’ in the 1920s),
b) have a think about what the business hosting this website does,
c) just stop.
If this line is in the book (and I remember some dodgy bits like this in my quick flick), then the author needs to take a long hard look at himself.
…because I can’t leave this here.
1. Frankie Manning didn’t invent lindy hop. A whole heap of people were dancing lindy hop before he got to it, and as with all vernacular dances, lots of people had a hand in ‘making’ and remaking it. Frankie himself would have been the first to make this clear.
2. Let’s talk about George Snowden at some point, and the ‘swing out’ or ‘breakaway’.
3. Let’s talk about WOMEN. Who were these leads’ partners? You can’t invent a partner dance on your own, you can’t do new and creative things in a partner dance without a partner. So fuck THAT noise.
4. I know that someone somewhere is trying to make a point about Frankie and the first ‘air step’ and I can dig that. But that is not where we will end this discussion: who pulled out this first over-the-top with Frankie? ie who was his partner? And what other sorts of acrobatic steps were happening before these guys pulled this out in a comp?
A discussion came up on the facey the other day about how leads can deal with rough follows. It caught my eye, because I’d just had a dance with someone the night before which was particularly rough. I was leading, and the follow really moved herself through steps in a fierce way which left me feeling a bit sore. It also dovetailed nicely with my ongoing thinking about how to prevent sexual harassment in lindy hop.
On that last topic, I’m approaching this with a different strategies:
Developing a clear code of conduct for behaviour
– (in progress)
Teaching in a way which helps women feel confident and strong, and provides tools for men looking to redefine how they do masculinity.
– using tools like the ones I outline in Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer
Teaching in a way which encourages good communication between leads and follows.
– I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
– I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
– I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
– I am totally ok with telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor because it’s a clear ‘rule’, but more ambiguous stuff is stumping me
– I’m trying to figure out how to do it in other non-class settings
– I’d like to find a way to skill up men so they can do this stuff too; ie it’s not just women’s jobs to deal with men sexually harassing women.
I seriously believe that feminist work needs to be practical. High theory and abstract conversation is very important, but for me pragmatic feminism means actually doing things. It’s important because it powers me up and makes me feel strong, but it’s also important because you know – actually DOING something. It can be quite hard and scary sometimes, because you are agitating, you are disturbing the status quo and you will attract some shit. Men don’t like to be told they’re doing dodgy stuff (and lefty men get particularly upset by this), especially when it’s a woman telling them. They often respond with physical intimidation, which is scary. And there can be social consequences for women which suck in a social dance community like lindy hop.
So, for me, I try to do this work in a way which isn’t too confronting or frightening for me. And which isn’t too confronting for other people. Feminism by stealth.
Where does Frankie Manning fit into all this?
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or are just new to lindy hop), Frankie Manning was one of the best dancers, choreographers, and troupe leaders of the swing era (1930s-40s). He’s generally positioned as ‘second generation lindy hop’, and credited with inventing the first public air step with his partner Freda Washington.
More importantly for modern lindy hoppers, he came out of retirement in his 60s to ‘teach us how to dance’. He taught people to lindy hop from the 80s until he passed away at 94 in 2008.
He wasn’t (and isn’t) the only old timer to do this. But most significantly, he had a very joyful, accessible approach to dancing, he didn’t mind that we all sucked, and he was prepared to work with complete amateurs, even though he really didn’t have any experience teaching total noobs or of teaching in a formal classroom context.
So Frankie holds a special place in many modern lindy hoppers’ hearts, and many of us take his example as near-gospel.
There are a range of problems with this approach, and I talk about them in Uses of history: a revivalist mythology. I basically say that I think we should be wary of uncritically using Frankie and his approach when we teach and talk about lindy hop. There are a host of political issues to consider when we appropriate his image and approach, both in terms of race, ethnicity and class, but also in terms of gender. Basically, he wasn’t perfect, and we have to be careful we don’t literally use him and his work for our own ends. And we have to be careful about how we use historical discourse in our classes.
So that’s my disclaimer, really: the next bit of this post is written with an awareness that I am a white, middle class woman writing in a developed, urban city in the 21st century. I am taking the words and teaching of a black, working class man of the early 20th century and using them for my own ends. I try to couch that with respect to Frankie’s memory, by name checking him and giving him credit for his work. I direct students to footage of his dancing, and to his own words.
I also make it clear that I am framing his work from my own POV and goals as a teacher and dancer. I didn’t know Frankie, and I only met him a few times and learnt from him a few times. So I tread lightly in his memory, and I try not to speak for him. But I am inspired him – by his dancing, by footage of his classes, by the mark he left on dancers who I learn from now and admire very much. I try to work with respect for his memory and for his work; he is an elder in our community, a custodian of knowledge, and important.
So here is something I wrote on the facey.
It’s about how I ‘use Frankie Manning’ in class to counter misogyny and sexism and to promote a type of connection that privileges creative collaboration, mutual respect, joy in dancing, and flat out badarse dancing.
I have trouble with rough follows every now and then. Especially ones who’re in troupes or do a lot of performing. They’re used to really physically strong leads (I don’t have the upper body strength of a man). I’ve had some bad shoulder and back twinges lately, despite my best efforts to improve my own technique, core stability and so on. As with dealing with rough leads when I’m following, I figure a rough follow is a partner who isn’t listening or paying attention to me because they’re stressing. At least I hope that’s what it is – it’d break my heart if rough follows were deliberately rough.
So the first thing I do if my partner is a bit rough, is to get us in closed position and tell a joke. But not too close a closed position, especially if they’re a woman who’s obviously weirded out by dancing with another woman. I’ll try to do something to distract the follow from being fierce and doing what they think I’m leading. Once we’re both chilled, and paying more attention to each other, I do super simple steps with a lot of emphasis on jazz feels and call and response – they do something, I echo it. That helps us both get on the same page. Then I build it out from there, adding in open position, etc etc.
So my first response to a rough follow is to become a really clear, yet incredibly gentle, responsive lead. And I make my basics the very best I can, so they feel confidence in me.
I’ve been using Frankie Manning as a good guide for safe dancing lately when I’m teaching. He would usually teach from the lead’s perspective, so I find it very helpful as a lead working to make a dance with a follow really comfortable and nice.
That means I’m emphasising:
– Looking into your partner’s face.
This is the most important thing I know about lindy hop. LOOKING into your partner’s face. It was the one big thing I learnt in the Frankie track at Herrang last year (where all the classes were taught by people who’d worked closely with Frankie). Once I noticed it, I was stunned by how infrequently partners look into each other’s faces.
It’s good for your alignment and posture relative to your partner, but it’s also good for making you connect with another human as a person, it helps you learn to observe your partner and recognise when they feel pain/scared/happy and it’s good for making you lol.
-> follows are less likely to throw themselves through steps if they’re looking at your face and seeing you flinch in pain. They’re also distracted from the move by the genuine human connection, so they stop pre-empting or rushing or panicking.
– Call and response rhythms as fun steps.
They make you pay a LOT of attention to your partner, visually and physically, so you can ‘hear’ what they’re doing rhythmically. This is good for interpersonal communication (how is my partner feeling?) and learning how to recognise physical signals (what does a suddenly-tight arm tell me when I combine it with their facial expression?)
-> this is the next level of looking at your partner. So follows stop pre-empting and are really there with you. And because you’re really listening to them (everyone calls, everyone follows), they feel like you’re listening to them, so they feel more confident and worry less about ‘getting it right’ and rushing or hurting you.
– Your partner is the queen of the world.
We say this a lot: your partner is the queen of the world (whether they’re leading or following, male, female, whatevs). This means that you have to look at them (and we model how to be impressed by/respond to your partner positively), and the ‘queen’ should then feel confident enough to bring their shit.
This teaches you to be connected emotionally with your partner, and to recognise how your positive response to a partner’s dancing can make them feel good and then bring their best shit.
-> follows bring incredible swivels and generally become the queen of the world. They pay more attention to you as a lead, and they feel like you’re really listening to them, so they reciprocate.
Brilliant for improving your dancing, but when your partner is scatting, you can hear them, so you’re connected with them in an additional way.
-> makes follows lol.
– Frankie thought the most important lindy step was the promenade*.
It’s in closed position, it requires lots of communication to walk together without kicking each other, and it has lots and lots of variations with lots of different emotions. It teaches you to communicate with someone, and you have to look into each other’s faces a lot, and be ok with that.
You get to hold someone in your arms, which means you have to be respectful.
*Lennart says so, so it’s probably true :D
-> I find some follows aren’t so ok with being so close, so I have to pay really close attention to them to find the ‘comfortable’ distance/connection. This makes me do my very best dancing. I try to put me in front first, so the follow feels more comfortable (follow first means they’re walking backwards – eeek!). I do pecks to make them lol, or rhythmic variations. I respond to the variations they bring.
– You’re in love for 3 minutes.
Doesn’t have to be romantic love. But for that 3 minutes, this person is the most important person in the world. You look at them, you lead steps you think they’re like, you do your best to realise the step or move their aiming for, you work to make this dance work.
To me, this is excellent mindfulness. It makes it hard to be rough with your partner. And when someone is feeding all those good vibes back at you, you smile and do your very best dancing.
-> follows become the queen of the world. They listen to you, and even better, they bring things to the dance.
I think it’s worth looking at a video of Frankie teaching to see how he did this stuff:
I don’t think his approach is 100% excellent. He does drive the class, he uses gendered language, etc etc. But he is the ‘star’ teacher, and his teaching partner partner is his assistant – this is very clear. He uses gendered language because he is explicitly thinking about male leads and female follows, and his talk about respectful dancing uses this gendered dichotomy. I’m not excusing this, I’m pointing it out. And here I can make this point: while I dig a lot of what Frankie is doing in this video, he’s not perfect, and I actually find that reassuring. He wasn’t a saint, he was a real person, and when we idolise dancers, we need to keep that in mind: we don’t excuse their faults because we love their dancing.
A couple of things I like about this class:
at about 4.44: “If you find yourself falling, and he does not stop you from falling…. take him with you.” I LOLed when I heard this. But it’s a nice, simple way of saying ‘look out for each other!’ and reminding women that they aren’t passive objects here.
11.48: Frankie tackles inappropriate contact “Fellas, don’t take advantage…. we are just dancin’”
Nuff said, really.
With all this talk about Frankie, I think it’s worth pointing out:
When you watch footage of younger Frankie (ie in his 60s, and 20s), he seems quite ‘rough’ or ‘strong’ compared to modern dancers. Is this in conflict with this ethos of mutual respect in lindy hop?
(photo credit: I found this pic via an image search on google, and it’s hosted by Swungover, but chrome crashed and I couldn’t find the page again! argh! So I don’t know who the photographer is!)
This is a tricky one, but I think it’s where we’re really done a disservice by the lack of attention to the original women lindy hoppers who danced with Frankie teaching us today. I suspect that women followers were a different breed too. When you watch historic footage, you see that they fiercely took space, and matched their partner’s intensity. So Frankie might have had a partner who was confident enough to take space, and to be a little less submissive and a little more determined to shine.
I have no evidence for this, and it probably reveals my own lack of dance knowledge and skill. But I’m wondering if we need to have a look at old footage in a new way. I’m thinking of the way Janice Wilson used to talk about Ann Johnson, and the fierceness of her swivels. And of course, you have to think of Norma Miller when you think about fierce women lindy hoppers.
At any rate, this brings us back to the idea of how we might use history when we talk about lindy hop partnerships. And I have no real, final answers, of course, just a bunch of poorly practiced ideas.
I have real problems with stories about jazz music and jazz dance (both historical and contemporary) that present it as a series of stories about heroic figures. Particularly heroic men. Who aren’t burdened by caring for children or partners. Or otherwise engaged with their local communities.
I get really shitty about this approach because it ignores all the other labour that makes art possible: cooking meals, earning money, cleaning houses, paying for doctors, networking with venue managers, agents, producers, and recording record labels, etc etc etc. And it ignores all the ways in which artists are engaged with and participate in their local communities, and how all these relationships shape their creative work.
This was something that the Ken Burns Jazz documentary did, and which I’ve written about a bunch of times, in posts like:
I was reminded of this today by a quote-pic (don’t you hate those? Can’t search them!) getting about on twitter. This is the bit that interested me:
Frank Barat: You often talk about the importance of movements rather than individuals. How can we do that in a society that promotes individualism as a sacred concept?
Angela Davis: Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
This Philadelphia Folklore Project exhibition is fantastic.
Note to self: chase down Lee Ellen Friedland’s latest work, as her project on tap dancers in Philadelphia was so important to my own work. And apparently she’s done work on jewish folk dances, which is important for talk about NOLA music and dance. And this exhibit’s host is based in Philadelphia.
NB I don’t have to explain why this exhibit is important, do I? Ok, I will anyway.
1) Women dancers. BOOM.
2) Chorus line projects are tres chic in the lindy hop world. The most interesting one I’ve seen so far is Marie N’Diaye’s project in Stockholm, where they’re based in the Chicago studio, and perform at Herrang, week in and week out. I had no idea just how intense and hardcore this project is until I saw Marie’s footage and spoke to her about their training and choreographing work load. This shit is intense.
3) A lot of the biggest name women dancers began in chorus lines. Josephine Baker. Marie Bryant. etc etc etc.
4) These women dancers were insanely fit and strong. They would be performing multiple times during the day, learning new routine every week, singing, dancing, tapping, jazzing, etc etc etc. These were dancing machines. And yet they were often dismissed as bits of fluff.
5) Managing chorus lines was a way for women dancers to participate in the entertainment industry as professionals with serious industry power.
6) Running chorus lines today is just as important for women dancers now as it was then: women working together, running serious projects, training bloody hard, learning to choreograph, run a troupe and dance business, generally be awesome.
7) Being in a chorus line is hard work, and a way for modern women dancers to get mad skills: fitness, strength, memory, quick learning skills, choreography, etc etc etc.
8) Chorus lines are a way for modern women dancers to sidestep the bullshit power politics of dancing and competing with male partners in the lindy hop world. And yet still get mad dance skills that improve their lindy hop.
This is a post that continues my thinking from that previous post about Basie and Jazz BANG, but here I work specifically with Count Basie and his influences. This post is a product of some discussion on facebook about Basie (and my previous 8tracks post), and really has grown out of this Basie session at Jazz BANG. It does of course, also develop the theme of innovation, improvisation and impersonation – step stealing and cultural appropriation/transmission in vernacular music and dance culture. And we all know how obsessed I am with THAT stuff. Love love love.
This post is shaped by some useful comments and references supplied by Andrew Dickeson on the Facey, in response to my 8tracks post, and more specifically, to my question about Fletcher Henderson’s influence on Basie and other musicians.
I’ve written about this version of Honeysuckle Rose many times before (here and here), I find myself using various versions of this song for teaching all the time, and I DJ with it a lot. I am very obsessed. I’m also fascinated by Fletcher Henderson, and the way he went from big name arranger and band leader to ‘joining’ Benny Goodman’s band. His life (which was somewhat tragic), and the role John Hammond played, really catch my interest. Also he had fucking MAD skills.
So here is an excerpt from a useful book Andrew hooked me up with, and an 8track set I put together to illustrate this section:
The early Basie book was casual and frequently borrowed, either in bits and pieces or, sometimes, whole. The ultimate sources was often Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Basie’s arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose is a slight simplification of Henderson’s. Basie’s Swinging the Blues comes from Henderson’s Hot and Anxious and Comin’ and Goin’*. Jumpin’ at the Woodside (as Dan Morgenstern points out) comes from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s Jammin’ for the Jackpot, with perhaps a glance at the arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose that Benny Carter did for Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. Jive at Five from the same ensemble’s Barrelhouse. The Mills’ Blue Rhythm Band was a Henderson-style orchestra.
*A more complete history of this piece is interesting and revealing. The 1929 Ellington-Miley Doin’ the Voom Voom, in AABA song form (an obvious Cotton Club specialty), became the 1931 Horace Henderson-Fletcher Henderson pair of pieces called Hot and Anxious (a blues) and Comin’ and Goin’ (partly a blues). those pieces all added the riff later called In The Mood. These, in turn, became Count Basie’s Swinging The Blues. Meanwhile, Doin’ The Voom Voom had obviously inspired the Lunceford-Will Hudson specialties White Heat and Jazznocracy, and these in turn prompted the Harry James-Benny Goodman Life Goes to a Party. In the last piece, the background figure (an up-and-down scalar motive) to one of the trumpet solos on Voom Voom had been slightly changed and elevated into a main theme.
[Edit: I’ve added the Fletcher Henderson version because I’d FORGOTTEN it. It’s currently my favourite.]
Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Count Basie and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Joe Keyes, Carl Smith, George Hunt, Dan Minor, Caughley Roberts, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Jack Washington, Claude Williams, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 3:00 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 01)
Honeysuckle Rose 1939 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Jimmy Maxwell, Johnny Martel, Ziggy Elman, Ted Vesely, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Toots Mondello, Buff Estes, Jerry Jerome, Bus Bassey, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool) 3:04 Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958) (Mosaic disc 01)
Honeysuckle Rose 1932 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, J.C. Higginbotham, Sandy Williams, Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Freddie White, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Katherine Handy) 3:14 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 03)
Swingin’ The Blues 1938 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:48 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)
Hot And Anxious 1931 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, Claude Jones, Benny Morton, Russell Procope, Harvey Boone, Coleman Hawkins, Clarence Holiday, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Bill Challis, Don Redman, Horace Henderson) 3:25 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 02)
Comin’ And Goin’ 1931 Baltimore Bellhops (Fletcher Henderson, Rex Stewart, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, John Kirby) 3:12 The Fletcher Henderson Story (disc 02)
Doin’ The Voom Voom – Take 1 1929 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra 3:08 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 02)
White Heat 1939 Jimmie Lunceford 2:31 Rhythm Is Our Business
Life Goes To A Party 1938 Harry James and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Vernon Brown, Earl Warren, Jack Washington, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 2:52 Life Goes To A Party
Life Goes To A Party 1938 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Hymie Schertzer, George Koenig, Art Rollini, Babe Russin, Jess Stacy, Allen Reuss, Harry Goodman, Gene Krupa, Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson) 4:17 Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall (disc 1)
Jumpin’ At The Woodside 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 3:10 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)
Jammin’ For The Jackpot 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Charlie Shavers, Carl Warwick, Harry Edison, Al Cobbs, Wilbur DeParis, Tab Smith, Eddie Williams, Ben Williams, Harold Arnold, Billy Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams, Lester Sonny Nichols, Chuck Richards, Lucky Millinder) 2:30 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Complete Jazz Series 1936 – 1937
Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Coleman Hawkins and his All-Star Jam Band (Benny Carter, Andre Ekyan, Alix Combelle, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Eugene d’Hellemmes, Tommy Benford) 2:47 Ken Burns Jazz Series: Coleman Hawkins
Jive At Five 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:51 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 03)
Barrelhouse 1936 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Lucky Millinder, Henry ‘Red’ Allen) 3:05 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Harlem Heat
Jumpy Nerves 1939 Wingy Manone and his Orchestra (Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Conrad Lanoue, Zeb Julian, Jules Cassard, Cozy Cole) 2:53 Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Mosaic disc 05)
In The Mood Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 3:19 The Tiffany Transcriptions (vol 9)
I’m very interested in discussions about history and historical research. I’ve written about a million billion times before (this post ‘Try To Write About Jazz’ sums up some of my thinking). One of the things I’m most interested in is the way dancers use history. We do a lot of things with historical narrative and historical texts. People use it to justify sexist behaviour (a friend of mine uses the excellent term ‘retrosexists’), they use it to present their dancing as more important (because it is more historically accurate), they use it as content for dance classes (eg we teach particular historical routines), they use historical photos and art work in their own PR activities, they use old magazines as guides to historically ‘accurate’ fashion…. The idea of ‘history’ as a resource is a very powerful one in the modern swing dancing world.
Before the internet (when? yes, in the olden days), a lot of this historical knowledge was shared face to face, by phone, on video and film and in letters and books. I’ve talked about this in terms of ‘cultural transmission‘ – the movement of ideas and practices between cultures (and generations and communities and….). Then the internet happened, and then youtube happened. I wrote about this in a journal article a few years ago, and my favourite part was the concept of ‘stealing’ in jazz dance.
Which is why I tend to take the position that if you want to be awesome, you’ve got to keep ahead of the curve. You have to be the person who’s getting stuff stolen from. You have to be the DJ who presents that new song, which every other DJ then plays – so you gotta keep looking for new music, and improving your skills so you know when to pay that new great song. You have to be the dancer who first does that step in a comp, which every other dancer then uses in comps and teaches in classes. This sort of competitive copying pushes us further, and makes us more creative.
But to be really creative, when you’re stealing that step/song/idea, you’ve got to present it back to the community in a new and improved form: you gotta make it better when you do it your way. Or else that crowd of fierce hoofers in the balcony seats are gonna drown you out with enraged tappeta tappetas.
I’m absolutely enamoured with the idea that we can steal a dance step. I’m fascinated by the way power (cultural, class, social, economic, etc) informs how and when and if we steal ideas and dance steps. In that article I argued that African American dance, in the early days (ie the slave days) was about subversive, underground power. I talked about the idea of appropriating dance steps as resistance, and I’ve used the cake walk as an example.
I’m not hugely interested in whether or not something is ‘historical accurate.’ But I am interested in how people use the idea of ‘historical accuracy’ to justify their dancing or thinking: “You must wear garters, because women did in the 1930s” or “You must play 1930s big band swing because that’s what dancers heard in the Savoy ballroom” or “You must learn to dance on the social dance floor only, because that’s how people learnt in the 1920s.” I am certain that in reading those statements you immediately thought of a dozen counter arguments: “Not every woman wore garters in the ’30s” or “I’m not living in the 1930s, so why should I wear garters?”, “People listened and danced to small bands at house parties in the 1930s, so why can’t I listen and dance to small band recordings?”, “Dance classes were a huge industry in the 1920s!”
I don’t really think it’s worth pursuing these sorts of arguments. But I do think it’s absolutely fascinating to look at the way uses of history (and historical ‘evidence’) can help us map patterns of power and influence. But then, I’m not a historian, nor have I ever claimed to be. If I had to mark my place in a discipline, it’d be feminist media studies, or feminist cultural studies. And we lack data, donchaknow. But then, that sort of demarkation of discipline (and defensiveness) really only makes sense in a university context. And I am not writing or working in a university.
I’ve just read this post, Google-historians, as linked up by Follower Variations. That’s the blog where I find most of the interesting bits and pieces about dance in the wider online swing discourse. I rely on blogs like this for linkies because I’m generally not all that interested in reading a lot of blogs about dance. Most of my online reading is in more hardcore feminist and lefty territory.
But my interest was caught by Harri’s post about ‘Google-historians’. It has a decidedly combative tone, which of course provides the reader with a ‘hook’ – a way into the text. Which is why I think people luuurve to get all up in my blog posts that use all caps, rather than my (much more interesting) posts about jazz discographies or vegetarian cooking. I can’t imagine why people don’t want to read all about which musicians played in which sessions of which bands on a particular date. People love history, right? Right?!
I’m not entirely sure what overall point this ‘Google historians’ post is trying to make: is it ‘stop using google!’, or ‘go to dance classes!’ or ‘cite your sources!’ or ‘don’t simplify history!’ ? I started writing a comment asking the author which of these it was. And then I realised that perhaps all of these are the point. Below is a comment I wrote there. I shouldn’t have written such a long comment on someone’s blog post, but, well, fuck. I write a lot when I’m interested. If I’m not interested, I’ve got nothing to say. But I figured I’d reproduce the comment here, in the spirit of not-thread-hogging.
I think I need some clarification of your thinking, Harri.
Are you arguing that any researcher who uses just digital sources is going to be full of rubbish?
I can’t agree with that. There’s lots of important stuff to be gained from a little super-powered googling. I’d argue that the important part is not the tools you use, but the way you read the material you find. It’s important to be critical (in the sense of critical thinking, where you ask questions about veracity, accuracy, ideology, context and so on), to be self-reflexive (how is who I am and my ideas about the world affecting the way I read this text?), and to seek out substantiating and corroborating sources.
I’d argue that any historian worth their salt should use a range of sources (primary, secondary, tertiary, etc -> speaking to people who were there; reading newspaper and first person accounts of people who were there; reading informed accounts of events by insightful observers). There are a whole host of digital sources (which you can search using google, which is after all just a powerful search engine – just a particularly clever index), and they can be very useful.
For example, if I wanted to find out about Australian/British responses to a certain dance hall, I might find this Trove search quite helpful. Trove is a very reliable tool, aggregating metadata from a host of reputable Australian digital collections. The most exciting of these (I’ve found) is the series of digitised Australian newspaper and magazine articles.
If I wanted to know what sort of film footage was available, so I could see what those newspaper stories were all about, I might search the catalogue of the National Film and Sound archive, the most reputable source of audio-visual material in the country.
I could use Pandora (a website archiving service run by the National Library) to access a history of the Trocadero in Sydney which includes first person accounts from people who were there.
But as we all know, this isn’t going to be enough for a really comprehensive historical survey. We’d need some first-person interviews. But all these digital sources are useful for finding out who we should be talking to. Who are the dancers mentioned in the newspaper reports? What do the dancers in the films look like? And so on and so on… Even if we do find a real person to talk to, there are going to be challenges. I remember Peter had written a really good how-to for interviewing older people about dancing on DanceHistory.org, touching on things like not rushing, being polite, being careful with emotive topics, etc etc.
Secondly, though, I think it’s impossible to get an ‘objective’ or final, authoritative history of a topic. So, for example, there’re a number of competing and equally authoritative stories about things like what it was actually like in the Savoy ballroom. Some of these stories are just completely made up (and I do like the idea that Al and Leon might have told Marshall Stearns a heap of lies – lol!), some are inaccurate because the person telling the story was mistaken, and some conflict simply because the story tellers had different experiences in the Savoy (eg a young white woman might have a different experience than an older black man). So if I do manage to chase down dancers from the Trocadero, using all those digital sources, there’s no guarantee that any single story will be enough to gain a bigger idea of what it was like.
I’m guessing this is your point? That we need to treat history as a complex, changing, moving story, rather than a simple one-off meta-narrative?
The next challenge, though, is how you actually go about stuffing history into your dance classes. When I teach, I like to reference the people who told me the story (eg “Norma tells a story in a clip filmed at Herrang in year X where she said…” or “Lennart pointed out that such-and-such was very young when they heard this story”). That seems important, and I think it encourages students to learn from a whole range of teachers (Norma and Lennart and…), which is a good thing for me to do, as a person who invites those teachers out to teach workshops and then needs to promote them** :D I think a lot of dance teachers are reluctant to encourage their students to do their own research and thinking, or to learn from other people. For the usual reasons.
But if you’re telling these historical stories in class, you have to keep them really short – the less talking, the more dancing in a dance class, the better (ie the more viable) they’ll be. You can’t just list a whole heap of facts and hope they’ll stick. You have to use story-telling carefully, integrating it with the physical movements and pacing of the class. This takes preparation, skill and experience. There was an interesting discussion on Jive Junction, years ago, where someone pointed out how Frankie’s story-telling skills improved over the years. He became a better story teller. And not every dance teacher is that good at telling a story.
I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that using history in dance culture is hard. You’ve got to have good research skills, you’ve got to have good story telling skills, and you’ve got to have the time to do all this. Here in Australia, we rarely see old time dancers – maybe one a year, if we’re lucky. And bad luck if you can’t make it to that event. So we’re necessarily restricted to using secondary and tertiary sources. And the internet.
Most dance classes are a labour of love, with very little financial return, and a whole heap of political complexity. We shouldn’t be surprised that some people are just crap at it. They might instead be very good at teaching people how to use their bodies. I think we should be kinder to dancers who’re actually talking about history (many don’t!), cut them some slack. And possibly point them in the direction of some useful research.
**In fact, I have a ‘how to include history in your classes’ class planned for the next Little Big Weekend teacher-development session (11-12 May 2013, with Lennart and Georgia, yo. SYDNEY). HOW EVEN DOES IT WORK?
NB Laura gives an example of how people tend to do research in the dance world in her post Pitch a Boogie Woogie and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers: it’s a combination of archival work and making contact with other historians who have access to other sources. As with any interesting work in the modern lindy hop world, the best projects are collaborative, and rely on personal contacts, networks of peers, and the generosity of dance scholars (in the dance scene).
My MA used lots of discourse analysis theory, which looks at the way language and words are used in written texts. I’ve also done some spoken discourse analysis work (which isn’t the same as linguistics, though there’s some crossover). I’ve been fascinated by the way spoken discourse analysis theory works in an online environment, where we can talk about online talk as spoken language. And of course, I’m fascinated by gender and power in these settings.
Let’s have a little think about the sort of public talk that women do in the lindy hop world. The lindy hop media world.
Radio (aka podcasts and streaming radio):
Hey Mr Jesse – no women hosts, but occasional women guest musicians (almost always singers) and ‘audience feedback’.
Yehoodi Radio Talk Show – Nicole is the new addition to the team (and is also a woman), but she is often out-talked by her co-hosts Manu and Rick.
Yehoodi Radio guest DJ – very few female DJs.
And in the blogging world?
I haven’t done the quantitative work to follow up on this stuff. When I was doing my PhD I did do some careful analysis of the Swing DJs discussion board, where I found there were far few women than men, and that they posted far less frequently than men. I think this is even more the case today, where I think I might be the only woman posting regularly. Though no one posts on Swing DJs regularly any more.
One of the things I noticed, and keep noticing, is that women tend to do more of the supportive talk online. They’re the ones who respond to people’s tweets about feeling bad with supportive comments (but not necessarily advice – they just make ‘comforting noises’ that helps people feel less alone). This was definitely the case in discussion boards – almost all the ‘supportive noises’ came from women. I was quite shocked when I realised this, because I thought it was a stereotype.
Men tend to be more combative, and to use more declarative statements. I’m like this, which is why I’ve always been confused for a man in places like Swing DJs where I’m not talking about gender. Though offering to kiss Reuben right on his face might have given me away. Because I don’t know a single queer male lindy hopper who’d have made that offer sincerely to another man in a public online forum.
This article, Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much, talks about perceptions of women and men talking. Or, how much we think women and men talk. The upshot is that people think women talk a lot, even if they’re talking very little. I’d have thought that anyone with half a brain has noticed that men dominate mixed gender settings, even if there’s just one man in the room!
It’s interesting to think about this in relation to dance classes. Who does most of the speaking in dance classes? The male teacher? The male students? And what are people’s perceptions of these amounts of talk? I have noticed, in almost every dance class I’ve ever been in that has mixed gender, men dominate talk. They ask more questions, and they are asked more questions.
There’s been a bit of talk lately about teaching follows and leads in class, and how to do it. Nathan Bugh wrote a piece Ladies First, which loses points immediately for unselfreflexive use of the word ‘ladies’, and then loses more points for some of the thinking. But it gains points because it suggests that we need to talk to the follows in class if everyone is to learn more. Though I’d argue that the fundamental point of Bugh’s piece is that we should give follows more attention in class so as to best improve the leads’ dancing. Yeah, nah.
My teaching partner and I have recently made a concerted switch from talking about leading first and mostly, to clearly setting out tasks for both leads and follows in class. I know, right? Two women, both of whom follow, and we’re still talking about leads? But we got wise, and realised that we needed to give the follows clear instructions and learning goals, or else they stood about saying things like “If the lead doesn’t lead it right, I can’t do anything.” inorite. But if we don’t actually point out to follows how they might improve their dancing in class, that’s how they’ll think.
Ramona Staffeld pointed out the importance of addressing follows in class to me this year, and it really helped me rethink my approach to teaching. It also made me rethink my leading, and to revalue following which is interesting, and tells you more about my own biases than I would like :D
I think, what I’m saying, here, is that if teachers address follows specifically in class, we give them something to work on, and more pertinently to this post, we give them something to talk about in class. We give them subjects for discussion, and we give them the language to talk about them with. We also make it clear that following is important enough to talk about, and that we invite their engagement – as learners and discussors – as follows. And, by extension (through gender tropes in our scene), as women.
So if you want women to participate more actively in class, you have to give them a way to participate (language tools, thinking and learning tools), you have to give them something to talk about (by talking about following as a craft requiring particular skills and practices) and you have to make the space more welcoming to women’s speech (ie actually shooshing the men, or addressing women as active participants in the lead-follow partnership).
In this way, you make a shift from thinking about following as some sort of natural state of grace, tied up with ideas about idealised femininity, to thinking about following as a craft. A craft which requires extensive thinking and practice and experimentation.
Isn’t it strange to see that old, old nature/civilisation gender dichotomy at work in lindy hop? Where we can map the masculinised ‘civilisation’ (doing and making and building and engineering and acting) onto leading, and the feminised ‘nature’ (being and feeling) onto following? It seems we need to do some second wave feminism work, here, my friends.
Deborah Tannen has written both scholarly work and popular publications about interruption and gender in conversation. She’s a great place to start if you want to get a quick introduction to this stuff.
You might also want to look up some interesting stuff on politeness and gender. I don’t have references off-hand, but if you use ‘feminist’ and/or ‘gender’ with ‘polite*’ as keywords, you’ll find useful stuff.
NB ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ is not a useful source. It essentialises gendered behaviour, and my type of feminism is very sceptical of essentialism. In fact, we think it’s bullshit.
The Reconstructionists, a collaboration between illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova, is a yearlong celebration of remarkable women — beloved artists, writers, and scientists, as well as notable unsung heroes — who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender.
Every Monday in 2013, we’ll be publishing an illustrated portrait of one such trailblazing woman, along with a hand-lettered quote that captures her spirit and a short micro-essay about her life and legacy.
The project borrows its title from Anaïs Nin, one of the 52 female icons, who wrote of “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world” in a poetic 1944 diary entry — a sentiment that encapsulates the heart of what this undertaking is about: women who have reconstructed, in ways big and small, famous and infamous, timeless and timely, our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.
Here is one entry that seems especially appropriate for this blog:
When 23-year-old Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973) first walked into the recording studio in 1938, she likely didn’t dare imagine that she would one day be celebrated as gospel music’s first superstar. The godmother of rock and roll. “The original soul sister.” But that’s precisely what the talented singer and electric guitarist went on to become, bridging the spiritual lyricism of gospel with the secular allure of rock and roll arrangements.