Women’s History Month: Blanche Calloway!


I’m a bit pushed for time today, as I’m in the middle of a dance weekend, but, well, I’m also hardcore. I’ll look up some less well known women later in the month when I have more time. :D

Blanche Calloway was Cab Calloway’s older sister, and was a musician, bandleader and composer in her own right.

This is a song she composed and recorded in 1934 with her male band the Joy Boys:

(Blanche Calloway – Catch On)

Women’s History Month 2012: Lil Hardin Armstrong!

Sure, she was married to one of the most famous men in jazz, but Lil Hardin was – much more importantly – an accomplished singer, pianist, composer, arranger, band leader and business woman.
Hardin was a part of King Oliver’s Creole band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, lots of other smaller projects, and of course led her own band. She’s popularly credited with pushing Louis Armstrong into a career of his own, outside the Oliver band.

Hardin recorded with Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1927, playing the song ‘Struttin with some Barbeque’ which she composed.

Louis Armstrong – Struttin’ With Some Barbecue

NB: I’m trying to list a different woman jazz musician every day for Women’s History Month. You can read this post for more info.

Women’s History Month 2012: Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was a phenomenal piano player, and one of the few who’s generally (though not hugely) well known in the lindy hopping world. She’s probably best known for her work with Andy Kirk’s band – as pianist and arranger but she went on to become an well known public figure and performer.

Read more about Williams here in this fascinating biography (which is where I found that image at the top of this post).

Williams composed, arranged and played on this 1938 version of ‘Little Joe From Chicago’, as well as heaps of other well-known songs by the Kirk band.

(Andy Kirk and his twelve clouds of joy – Little Joe from Chicago)


(An untagged photo of Mary Lou Williams in the Gjon Mili Life Magazine collection)

NB That’s Pearl Primus in the back, to the left.

Women’s History Month 2012: Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears!

Women’s History Month is here again, and this month I’m going to do a different woman jazz musician every day. I’m away in Melbourne for a weekend of actual, real live dancing, so I’ve pre-written this post. Hopefully it publishes properly.
I’ve started by stealing a post from last year because I haven’t had a chance to research this properly (you can read all my pathetic excuses here in this post.)

Here’s a whole band full of amazing jazz women: Ina Rae Hutton and her Melodears!

linky

You can read more about Hutton in this good little Guardian article from last year (which is where I found that cool photo).

Women’s History Month 2012


(photo stolen from here)

Women’s History Month is just about here again. Ah, March, season of Power Vag and Orsm Ovary. Time of Menopausal Might and Menarchal Majesty. Moonth of Fuck All That Biological Determinism, Let’s Get On With Doing Mad Shit.

This year’s theme is Women With a Plan: architects, town planners and landscape architects and I had planned to list a different woman choreographer each day, but I’m just about to go away and didn’t get any research done. Bad Girl! Then I decided I’d lift a few Excellent Jazz Women of Win from last year’s posts and put some new ones together when I get back. Because, frankly, it’s probably more important that a woman’s out there actually dancing than writing about dance, right?

Now I’m wondering if I should do a different woman jazz musician every day instead. Just repeating dancers from last year won’t really teach me much, and I found that having to scrabble to find a different woman dancer taught me a lot last year. And it wasn’t actually hard to find 31 different women dancers – I ended up with plenty more than I needed! The best part was hassling all my dance history friends for help and details :D
Ok, this year I’ll do musicians. But I don’t really have time to put together some posts ahead of time for this weekend when I’m away dancing. So I might have to make them up at the end of the weekend instead, Ok? I might borrow one from last month to start me off, though.

Just to add to the challenge, to celebrate Women’s History Month, I might see if I can do zero following in March, and only lead. This is going to break my heart when male (lead) friends ask me to dance, particularly while I’m away this weekend, but I’ll see just how long I can go. Why do this? Well, I just thought of it then when I was thinking, and I like a challenge. Also: why the fuck not?

Women’s History Month: month of potty mouthed blog posts, it seems.

Ok, get ready for me to come begging for ideas for women musicians mid-way through March. I’m probably going to end up needing your help. :D

New thoughts about the long term sustainability of dance projects

Oh! Exciting! Last night Alice and I launched our new weekly class in Petersham… I say that as though it was just us two there working the door, making up lead numbers (we only needed one more lead!), buying drinks, laughing and talking and filling the room, bringing our friends along just to see what dancing’s like, offering advice on PR, working the bar and making food. We really couldn’t have pulled it off without lots of help from all of our friends, from our respective kissing-partners (my Squeeze gets mad props for being a gun working the door, Alice’s for filling in lead numbers and both of them for being ridiculously chillaxed and having no doubt of our abilities), from the lovely Petersham Bowling Club staff, from, well, everyone we know. We are so grateful for the work people have put in, even (or most particularly) those people who were patient enough to sit through one of our rambling conversations full of what-ifs and low-number-anxiety.

Basically, we had support and help from pretty much everyone we know. And we’re so grateful. Running a dance event is a social enterprise, from beginning to end, and even though it’s a cliche, we absolutely couldn’t have gotten even this far without everyone’s support and encouragement.

I now have lots of things to write about here about teaching and running classes and volunteer labour and the economics of running weekly classes and the relationship between social and class dancing and… well, lots of things. But it’s not really cool for me to write about what is, essentially, other people’s business here on my blog. I’ll let it all percolate a little more and see if I can come up with something that’s not going to be indiscrete or inpolitic.

I’d love to talk about how we might use various media to promote our event. That’s the sort of thing my academic phd brain loves thinking about most. I spent so long researching and writing about media use in a capitalist, patriarchal culture, I just can’t stop myself then applying that work to the practical public relations strategies for a (highly gendered) dance class in a multimedia cultural environment.
I’m fascinated by the relationships between digital, print, face to face/word of mouth, radio and audio visual texts and media. I’m so interested in the way brands can be developed at a small, seriously local/micro level. I’m all a twitter with ideas about developing a sustainable business model centred on collaborative creative practice.

Every time we put together a Faceplant ad or print a poster or make an announcement at a dance or simply dance in public my brain kind of explodes with the wonderfulness of how humans work together and tailor media for our very particular uses. But I also have to stop and calm myself down: baby steps, yo.
While it’s possible to run on ahead at a million miles a minute when you’re thinking through ideas for a bit of academic writing, the actual practice of all this theory requires a slower pace. As my design subjects and dance practice have taught me, you learn a lot from actually doing something, and thinking about that thing isn’t actually all that helpful for understanding, really knowing how that thing works. I need to put the practice before the theory, but at the same time let the critical and theoretical work inform what I do. Nothing new for a feminist who sees dance itself as a feminist project. But something new for the lecturer/writer/tutor who spent so much time working on advertising and media discourse.

I guess the thing that I’m most struck by now, and will no doubt come to obsess me, is the difference between running a one-off event and a weekly event that goes on and on and on and on and on and on. Running a one-off gig is tiring and anxiety-making, but it’s over after a few months or a year. With a long-term gig like a weekly dance or class, you need stamina, and the work you do must be sustainable. You can’t make yourself ill with overwork; you can’t live in a state of high anxiety/alert or you’ll go nuts. Your work needs to be sustainable. And that means that there are all sorts of different labour politics, issues surrounding professional and personal networking, skill development and PR practices to think about.
It’s fascinating for me, because I’m so used to doing one-off gigs. Big weekend exchanges. One-night dances. One-off classes. Coordinating DJs for our local events is a long-term gig, but it’s a pretty simple one (though do remind me to talk about how we’re going to encourage and foster new DJing talent as a long term project). I have to say, right now I’m really interested in the dynamics of making a weekly gig sustainable – environmentally, culturally, socially, economically.

That first one is important because our venue, the Petersham Bowling Club, has a strong commitment to environmental sustainability, having secured some grant money for installing rain tanks, solar power and other lovely things. This is especially important for a venue that is a bowling green. Greens are traditionally environmentally and economically expensive. I’m also interested in the way dances are quite energy wasteful. We use a lot of electricity for cooling, for sound systems, for lighting. Yet we don’t harvest any of the (masses and masses) of energy our bodies expend on the dance floor. We don’t use that piezoelectricity generated by impact on the dancefloor the way some Dutch doods do. We don’t harvest the energy in the heat generated by our bodies. And that’s a lot of heat. Nor do we collect the moisture in the air from all those sweating bodies. The PBC isn’t the only venue in Sydney interested in environmental sustainability. The Red Rattler is also prioritising these things. I tend to spend more time thinking about social justice than environmentalism when I’m doing dance stuff, but I have noticed that the two issues tend to overlap in the priorities of particular venues. And the Petersham/Marrickville/inner west area is kind of keen on this stuff. As the Greens and other lefty political entities have realised.

I also think a weekly event has to be culturally sustainable. You have to offer something that not only suits your market/community in that first launch moment, but is also responsive to the changes in the wider dance community as well as individual students’ and social dancers’ needs. I think it’s important that a weekly event be responsive to the musical, cultural and creative requirements of dancers over the long term, whether they are students in the class or social dancers. That might mean adjusting class content to suit students’ interests and skills, or creating promotional material that correctly targets that preferred demograph, but it also means doing things like making musical choices that reflect broader dance community interests and responding to dance style fads and vintage/contemporary fashion overlaps.

Weekly events have to be socially sustainable as well. That means responding to the social needs and context of the local geographic area (Petersham, and inner-western Sydney) and to the social needs of dancers already in the scene. To put it clumsily (and to suit my own approach, rather than a broader critical or theoretical model), cultural sustainability is about the creative and functional things we do and make, as dancers, while social sustainability is about the interactive, human to human relationships and living. Weekly dance events can’t just be about dancing or dance-related cultural practice. They also have to be about social context and practice. Events have to be socially relevant and positioned carefully for longevity. The fact that some of our students came to their very first class simply because they’d seen a poster at the venue during the week is testament to the fact that matching venue to event is very important in targeting your preferred demograph. Dancers who aren’t coming to class are going to need a space that’s offering more than just a dance floor, if you want your event to be truly socially sustainable. That means thinking about food and drink, transport and safety, opening and closing hours and the shared values and interpersonal relationships at work in dancers’ lives. You can see how environmental sustainability can overlap with social sustainability.

And finally, weekly events have to be economically sustainable. This is perhaps the most important issue. I’m a big fat hippy socialist feminist, and I love nonprofit, community-run and ethically responsible dance events. I won’t have anything to do with an event that exploits workers or punters, or that articulates racist, sexist, homophobic or other hateful sentiments. I’m happy to do things ‘for the love of dance’, ‘for charity’ or ‘for the sake of art’, so long as that thing is a source of pleasure (rather than pain), ethically sound and socially responsible. But at the end of the day, financial responsibility is part of being a socially, culturally and ethically sustainable project.
You need to be able to cover your costs, you need to offer your host venue a sensible profit so they can justify your working relationship. You need to provide facilities that are safe, efficient and effective, and that means spending some money. And at the end of the day, if you’re doing this gig every single week, putting on classes or social dancing with all the preparation that involves (and there’s a lot of it, even if you’re ‘just’ doing a social dance), you need to give your workers – your teachers, DJs and staff – some sort of financial reward. Even if it’s just another way to show that you value their work. Even minimal pay can help relieve rent anxiety or defray the costs of transport and time and resources. Running short of money can be a serious source of anxiety for organisers, and being economically sustainable can help relieve that. Not to mention pay the bills and make the whole thing possible.

So, as you can see, I have lots to say, and lots to think about. But I can’t talk specifically at the moment, because this isn’t just my project. There are other folk involved, and sometimes knowing when to stop talking is just as important as knowing when to speak up.

Another look at appropriation in dance

Appropriation, step-stealing, cultural transmission, imitation, impersonation, copying, poaching….

So my last chunky post ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance has kind of hit like a ton of bricks. Cultural transmission in dance – the movement of dance steps and forms and ideas between and within cultures – is pretty much my core research interest, and I definitely don’t want to leave this topic just yet. I certainly didn’t want to leave things with a fairly despairing discussion about blackface and discomforting appropriation.

This is a very long post, and it’s divided into these sections:

1. What is cultural transmission?

Right. What do I mean when I talk about ‘cultural transmission’. Basically, in this context, I’m talking about the movement of cultural ‘stuff’ – in this case dance steps/rhythms/styling/etc – between cultures. But why stop there? I like writing long posts, and this is such an exciting topic. So strap in.


(photo of Willi Ninja stoled from here)

A fairly simple example of cultural transmission in dance would be the movement of vogueing from queer culture to mainstream pop culture via Madonna’s 2006 Vogue video clip. The 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning is a cool beginning place for looking at this stuff, and you can watch Part 1 of Paris is Burning on Youtube. You can see Will Ninja dancing in the Malcolm Mclaren Deep in Vogue music video.

Wait. I’ve just dated myself. Ok. So another cool example is the way Krumping was promoted in the mainstream by David LaChapelle’s 2005 film Rize. Fark. My cultural references – they are out of date! And I don’t want to suggest that just one film or music video is enough to stimulate the shift of a dance from marginal to mainstream spaces. There’s quite a bit more going on, and quite a few more people involved in the process, from dance teachers to performances by lesser-known dancers to trends in night club cultures and DJing interests.

Basically, we’re talking about dances moving from one cultural context (in these cases queer culture and urban African American youth street dance culture) to another (mainstream, predominantly white-owned and organised music industry). These two examples suggest that this cultural transmission thing is a matter of one rich, powerful culture ripping off another. Maybe. But cultural transmission is more complicated. Not every example of borrowing or step stealing is dodgy.

I often talk about the cake walk as an example of cultural transmission, and I’ve listed a bunch of references for my ideas about cake walk in Dance competitions and policing public space. In this case, slaves borrowed particular movements from the culture of the slave owners. And then fucked with it. This is a bit more transgressive than Madonna having some kids vogue in her video clip.

Power, class, identity and cultural transmission

But I do think we need to keep Katrina Hazzard Gordon’s words in mind: “Who has the power to steal from whom?” What are the broader power relationships at work in the society where this transmission is happening? Who has the most money? Whose opinions and beliefs are most frequently presented in the media? Which types of sexual relationships are presented as ‘normal’? Yes, it is possible for less powerful people to steal dance steps from other groups, but what does it mean when they do?
If we’re going to do informed thinking about this, we have to recognise that societies and relationships are structured by class, by gender, by sexuality, by age, by ethnicity and so on. The choices we can (and are allowed to) make, the way we dance, is affected by who we are, as social beings. If you totally believe that none of this matters, and that the individual is simply who they have made themselves, then this is not the post (nor the blog) for you. I’m not saying that we are powerless to change our fates, but I am saying that it is naive to assume that we are just the sum of biology or individual choices. Social animals, yo.

In my work I’ve argued that cultural transmission involves some sort of ideological and structural reworking for the thing or practice being transmitted. Dance steps aren’t just carried, whole, to new cultural locations and traditions. They get changed a bit. They’re usually toned down for conservative mainstream audiences. There’s quite a bit written about this, stacks talking about hip hop, but quite a bit on partner dancing. For example, Jane Desmond talks about mambo and its popularity in white communities in the 1950s, and Sheenagh Pietrobruno discusses salsa classes in Montreal. But this repackaging of marginalised practice for mainstream consumption isn’t restricted to dance. Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing was retuned for white audiences. The recent remake of Hairspray pretty much undid all the badass subversion of the John Waters original – folks got whiter, language got cleaner, dances go duller, drag queens got undragged.

It’d be easy to just give up, to dismiss cultural transmission as indelibly marked by class and power and ethnicity and the work of The Man. But then, you’d be giving up before you got to the good part. Yes, the commodification of dances like mambo and lindy hop can be read as the appropriation of street dance by elite groups in the mainstream. But cultural transmission doesn’t work in only one direction. We hoomans, we’re complicated beasts. And terribly creative. Cultural transmission can be subversive and exciting.

Cultural transmission via Star Trek fans

I developed my ideas about step stealing and cultural transmission by way of fan studies. Or, more specifically, by way of textual poaching, Camille Bacon Smith and women SF fans. Women who wrote slash fiction. The idea here, is that fans of the Star Trek television show imagined whole new lives for the heroes, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. Whole new relationships. In the tv show Spock and Kirk are platonic friends. Very good friends. But in the imaginations of fans, they could be so much more.

I really like this idea that characters in a story have entire lives we don’t see. I also really like the thought of fans – people who are painted as helpless consumers – totally fucking up the myth that they are victims of aggressive television. Basically, I took this idea of textual poaching (where fans ‘poached’ characters or stories from mainstream media texts) and applied it to dance. Thing is, I wasn’t the first person to get up on this idea. Frankie Manning himself had a reputation as a hardcore step stealer. Someone who’d copy your steps, then pull them out himself. Of course, the trick lies not in creating an exact copy of that original step, but in remaking it and performing it a new and unique way that makes people SQUEE. And Frankie certainly made people SQUEE. Nor was he first at this. It’s a feature of vernacular dance generally.

Cultural transmission between generations

I’m also very interested in the transmission of dance steps and forms across generations. It stands to reason that young people gonna do young people things, and there are types of dances which they’ll invent to suit their needs and interests. Lindy hoppers totally understand this. We regularly tell each other stories about how the swingout was an adaptation of the European partner dance format. Or, to be clearer, there’s a story about how Shorty George Snowden and his partner broke out into open during a dance contest, and totally blew people’s brains. And of course, there’s also the story about how Frankie Manning and Freda Washington, keen to bring something new to win a dance competition pulled out the first air step and blew people’s brains with that.

Vernacular dance happens in cross-generational spaces, from homes to street parties and church dances. There’s quite a bit written about this: Katrina Hazzard Gordon has a book called Jookin’, LeeEllen Friedland talks about this in reference to tap dance and hip hop. As a result, dance forms do not simply die out or disappear when the current generation moves on to something else. ‘Old’ dances live on in the dancing bodies of older people in the community, and are regularly revisited and ‘borrowed’ by younger people.

Jonathan David Jackson argues that black movement traditions are ‘choreologically contemporaneous’. That’s another way of saying that new dance steps and styles (like lindy hop in the 20s/30s, breakdance in the 70s/80s) develop at the same time as old fashioned steps stop being popular with young people. Jackson argues that rather than disappearing, replaced by new steps, old steps are recycled.

principles of physical, spatial, aural, and qualitative action are passed on from one tradition to the next (41).

This is pretty exciting stuff. It means that lindy hop didn’t die out in the 1950s. It just changed shape. This also means that older dances are continually revived and rediscovered by younger people. How? By watching old folks dance, by learning from old folks. But also by the fact that principles of movement (balance, spatial awareness, everyday rhythmic movement) persist in a community. They don’t just disappear.
I really like this cross-generational aspect as it encourages a relationship between young people and older people which is based on mutual respect, and cements the role of older people in our community. I once gave a talk at a conference on cultural transmission in dance where there were some young Indigenous Australian dancers from Bangarra in the audience. I ended up talking about this idea of learning dance from elders with a young koori woman choreographer. We were both excited about the idea that our dance cultures were so community-rooted, but we each also had frustrations about how this could limit what we did as women dancers. In her case, there are some warrior dances which women aren’t allowed to learn, but which she found particular exciting and inspiring. So there are limitations to this cross-generational stuff as well.

Improvisation, making stuff up and dance-as-discourse

Yet this cross-generational ‘choreography’ also implies and responds to social change within the community and wider society. Lindy hop was a response to the development of swinging jazz and the rise of the Harlem renaissance: new music demanded new dance steps. Jazz, at its most fundamental level, combines improvisation with formal structure. For me, this is the most exciting part. Jazz music is vernacular music (or it was – I’ve been meaning to write about jazz’s shift from folk or pop music to ‘art’ music). Jazz is also all about improvisation – making stuff up. Innovating. Changing. Being flexible enough to bend and respond to the user’s needs and ideas. So jazz dance has to be the same way. It’s all about innovation, improvisation, change, response.

Improvisation, making stuff up and ballet

So, if innovation and change are essential parts of vernacular dance, what about concert dances like ballet? I’d argue that they’re all about managing change and in many cases restricting it, preserving dances as they are. But even there, choreographers and dancers are innovating. And it’s certainly true that vernacular dance is also carefully managed. There are, for example, some dances you wouldn’t do in front of your parents. Frankie Manning used to tell a story about his mother going out to dance in a way that she didn’t think was appropriate for a young boy to see (let alone do). This is an example of how dance at once reflects cultural and social mores, but is also regulated and managed by community values. Just like ballet, only it’s done in a different way.

George Balanchine is a good example of a ballet dancer and choreographer who brought African American movements and aesthetics to ballet, pushing some barriers (not without challenges) and introducing new ideas to a fairly resistant culture.

(Katherine Dunham, 1943 Life Collection)
Katherine Dunham was a dancer and choreographer who did similar work, stretching concert dance with movements and shapes and ideas from other cultures. In this case, we can see clearly politicised goals at work – Dunham was making it clear that ballet and ‘elite’ white mainstream art dance was enriched by contributions from other dances and other dance cultures.


(1939 image also from the Life collection)

Pearl Primus is another example of a black woman dancer moving into ballet/concert dance and bringing with her quite radical ideas about movements and types of movement.

Cultural transmission in dance as politics

These are all examples of ethnicity and concert dance as a place for cultural transmission. I talked a bit about the specific changes and differences between these different dance traditions in gimme de kneebone bent. I’m really excited by the idea of dance as a product of culture as well as physiology. Our sense of aesthetics in dance is informed not only by our cultural values and who we are, as social beings, but also by our ideas about gender and beauty and art generally. This is partly why I get so worked up about shoes. High heel shoes make feet seem smaller and pointed, and the leg seem longer and straighter. Legs in heels aren’t some sort of objective marker of ‘beauty’. Feeling that legs in heels is ‘sexier’, ‘more feminine’, ‘better’ than legs in other shoes is a product of how we are raised, of social/economic class, the culture we live in, and how we think about bodies and beauty. And not everyone shares these ideas. I simply think it’s a mistake to box ourselves in with limited ideas about what can be beautiful or skilled dancing. We are capable of such wonderful things; why limit ourselves to just one small corner of that?

So change (often through individual improvisation and innovation), is a necessary feature of vernacular dance. Re-presenting everyday life in dance lets dancers express themselves, and engage with the ideas and powers of their local community and wider society. This become especially important when the dancers involved do not have access to the ‘official public sphere’ – to newspapers, films, mainstream media, public lectures, the education system and so on. Dance can give disempowered folk a chance to recreate gain ‘control’ of their often hostile everyday life.

Everyday life and cultural transmission in dance

Vernacular dance – street dance, folk dance, rather than concert or stage dance – are responses to people’s everyday lives and environments. So you see types of movements in vernacular dance which echo the dancer’s everyday movement and lifestyle. LeeEllen Friedland talks about rhythmic movement in day to day life, arguing that when you live in a culture where music and dance are part of everyday life, there’s no clear line between ‘dance’ and ‘rhythmic movement’. So, for example, the basic charleston step which we lindy hoppers are nuts about, is structurally very like walking. The arms swing, the legs move forwards and back, the bounce which generates energy in the movement originates in the torso (or core) travels out through the body, to the arms and hands. Just like when you walk. More specifically, there are plenty of jazz steps which are deliberate references to everyday activities and movements. For example the ‘cherry picker’ (or I’ve heard it called ‘praise allah’) looks just like reaching up to pick cherries, then down to put them in a basket.

One of the things I’ve especially liked is the thought of dancers imitating real live people in their neighbourhoods. Or ‘types’ of people. The pimps in Harlem. Sailors on the docks. Plantation owners. For a people without access to the mainstream media, dance offers a right of reply, a discursive space for the thrashing out of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the management of public identities and social norms.
What all this then means is that dance becomes an extension of everyday life, rather than a discrete, separate activity.

Cultural transmission in modern day lindy hop

That’s pretty much what my research was about. Except I then went on to talk about what happens in modern day lindy hop contexts. Because I was grounded in media and cultural studies, I was particularly interested in how dancers today use digital media to do all this. I talked about digital video clips and learning dance steps and sharing dance ideas cross-culturally. I also talked about online talk and developing and cementing international and inter-scene relationships via online talk. And I talked about DJing using digital tools.

Ok, so let’s go there. Let’s talk about modern day lindy hop and cultural transmission. If we can agree that black American dancers imitating and step stealing and poaching is empowering and subversive, what does it mean when modern day dancers start doing this stuff? I think it can be highly problematic (as I described in ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance. But we can’t stop there. What about Korea? What about Japan and Singapore? What about black American dancers today learning lindy hop? What about Asian-Australian dancers imitating Dean Collins? Shit is wacked, right? I mean, we can’t just write off the modern lindy hop project as fucked up appropriation or racism. For every blackface performance there’s stuff like this:

linky

This is, of course, a group of Korean lindy hoppers making a birthday greeting for Frankie Manning, combining traditional Korean song and dance with the shim sham. It’s the ultimate mark of respect for an older man, a teacher, and a hero for these young Korean people. It’s also a brilliant example of cultural transmission, combining all sorts of musical and dancing influences. I think Frankie would have adored it. I know I do. It makes me tear up with its sincere respect and affection for Frankie Manning.

And we have to think about the Two cousins video clip. Neither of the men in that clip are African American, but they are of African descent, and they are thoroughly grounded in the history of this dance, both creatively and politically. I remember Ryan François talking about how important it was a young black British man to discover lindy hop and Frankie Manning. This recreationism can be suspect, but it can also be wonderful and empowering and exciting.

I’ve talked a lot about race and ethnicity here. But let’s talk about gender and sexuality.

Historical recreationism, gender and having a clue

I have some reservations about a hardcore historical recreationist approach to lindy hop today. Mostly because, hey, we don’t live in the 1920s, 30s or 40s. Yes, the costumes and the music and the dances are fun. Super fun. And it’s totally ok to spend lots of time and effort into recreating them. But the 1920s, 30s and 40s weren’t terribly awesome places to live. Particularly if you weren’t white. It was even a bit shit if you were a woman. I mean, I like the right to vote, to own property, to divorce. I like having clean water and food, and good solid health care. I like knowing my child won’t die from polio or that I won’t die from a botched abortion on a kitchen table because I didn’t have access to safe contraception. And I’m a white woman. If I’d been black, in America or Australia, things would have been way shitter.

I don’t want to recreate those days. I don’t want to pretend that they were so wonderful and great. And I think that if you’re going to get into historical recreationism, you need to be very aware of your own privilege and power, and of the broader historical contexts of the clothes and music and dances you love. I mean, a Pearl Harbour dance, today? Not so cool. Blackface? Again, you gotta have a think about what that meant at the time, and what it means now. This is why I’m really not ok with WWII themed dances. I’m not at all ok with planning a dance – a good party time – based on the idea of conflict that killed so many and to which my own grandparents were so seriously opposed. Sure, I think we should remember these conflicts, but I also think we should think about those wars and the meanings behind the symbolism we just mash into our dance events.

Being right on and doing historical recreationism: fan SQUEE

Ok, so how do I reconcile all those misgivings with my absolute passion for the dances and music of the period? How do I do recreationism without giving myself the shits? Firstly, I go for the intent and the ideas behind and within these dances. Lindy hop, jazz dance, vernacular dance can be so subversive. Think of that cake walk, the mocking of slave owners, the thumbing of the nose to the oppressor. That’s an excellent idea. Think about impersonation and derision dance – speaking back, responding to bullshit politics on the dance floor. This is exciting for me because it is non-violent, creative activism. But it can also just be plain good fun. I mean, it blows my BRAIN that leading in lindy hop can at once be so incredibly subversive (a woman making decisions? a woman, complete without a man? unpossible!), but is also (and more importantly) so much FUN.
I’ve always thought that while getting angry about injustice is useful for galvanising the self, it’s also bloody depressing. Eventually, I need to get active and to empower myself. And I see being physically strong and capable (to the best of my ability), being creative, finding pleasure in my self and my own body as the most exciting way of fucking over the patriarchy. I mean, the sweetest, finest revenge is simply being happy and confident. Particularly in my culture, where the ‘beauty industry’ is all about trying to make me anxious and self-doubting. I choose not to waste my time and worry on what my hair looks like or whether I’m pleasing some man. I choose to spend my worry and time on getting that goddamn swingout as fine as it can possibly be.

The fact that we can do all this in public is also pretty damn good. Dance is a public discourse. It’s an engagement with ideas and social forces and structures. It’s a way of expressing our own ideas. Our own selves. That is why I’m so keen on the idea of diversity in dance, and in not enforcing a particular way of dancing as a woman or a man. We are all the more richer for our differences.

Putting it all into practice: an example

So let me sum up with a nice example. I’m going to talk about Dax & Sarah – Moses Supposes US Open Cabaret 2010 performance:

Which is a recreation of Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor in the ‘Moses Supposes’ number from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain

What do I find so great about this? First, it’s great dancing. I like what I see. It’s historical recreationism to the nth degree. These are two modern day dancers performing choreography inspired by a particular film sequence, wearing costumes inspired by that same sequence, using the sound from that sequence. SQUEE! But unlike the Day At the Races routine, we’re not seeing any dodgy fatsuits. Race is still happening here – these are two white kids performing a routine danced by two white man. Whiteness is race, is ethnicity. I think class is also at work (and a central theme for the original routine, of course). But the gender stuff is what I get most squee about.

I really really like it that Sarah has co-opted the part of a male actor and dancer. So many of the solo jazz routines danced by women around the lindy hop world have them in some sort of sexeh frock, doing teh sexeh ladee dancing. But in this case, Sarah is wearing trousers, a blouse (rather than a shirt), flat shoes, and her hair is tied up. She definitely reads as conventionally female, but not in a spangles-and-sex sort of way. More importantly, she’s dancing virtually the same steps as her male fellow performer. I especially like it that this performance works in complement to her existing ideas about shoes and whatnot. I think it’s particularly subversive that she can do all the gender stuff.

Dancing in drag

I’m quite keen on this idea of dancing in drag, or of performing gender in this way. I mean, I often think about my own dancing in this sort of way. I make extensive, and thorough, use of historical clips myself. I use them as a source for new steps, for ways of holding my body, for styling, for attitude. But I’m using both the male and female dancers for this. When I’m dancing, I frequently think to myself “I’m Frankie!” or “I’m Al!” or even “I’m Skye!” It’s not that I’m actually imagining I’m these men in particular, or a man in more general terms. I’m very happy with being a woman. And with femininity (just not that boringly conventional heteronormative ladygirl femininity). But sometimes, in those moments when I’m dancing, I can imagine that I’m occupying that space that is awesome dancing and freedom of movement and creativity that I associate with my male heroes and role models. I want to occupy that Al Minns Leon James attitude, that Frankie power and excitement, that Skye dancing-squee enthusiasm. It makes me feel confident and happy. I know I’ll never dance like them, nor do I really want to be just like them, but it can be important to me to put on that identity like a costume. So when I’m dancing, I’m wearing that attitude, and it gives me confidence. Also, playing dress up and make believe is bloody good fun.

So when I see Sarah in that clip, I think ‘Yep. That works for me.’ It’s a moment where the dressing up and recreation is super fun and exciting. I don’t have to negotiate dodgy race politics. I can just enjoy the subversion of a woman ‘dancing man’ but owning it in her way. I guess, though, that this is how hegemony and patriarchy work. The smooth fit of class and race seems ‘right’, and anything else is kind of jagged and unsettling. We’re used to seeing these sorts of images of healthy young white male bodies being athletic and creative, ‘speaking’ and articulating a clever commentary on social relationships. Not much is being challenged by the original sequence. Really, the best part is Sarah’s occupying the male character and reworking it to accommodate her own gender.

Eccentric dance: where I’d like to live

I think this is why I’m very interested in eccentric dances. I had this sudden moment about a year ago, when I was doing lots of solo work, when I suddenly thought, watching videos of myself “Why am I trying to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘cool’ or otherwise conventionally attractive or ok? These guys aren’t.” You know that moment when you first watch yourself dancing on video and you cringe? Well, I realised that I was trying to get rid of that feeling by conforming to the sorts of ‘cool’ dancing I saw in modern day comps. I gradually realised that it wasn’t really possible for me to look like that. I’m not tall and thin; I’m kind of square with some round parts. I’m not hugely athletic. I have a round belly and lots of jelly all over me. I have big slabs of muscle in my legs and arse, and my arms don’t quite get straight. I’d been thinking of these as problems to overcome. But then I decided that these could become my strengths. No one else is quite my shape, or moves quite my way. I don’t need to please the people watching me – I can make them uncomfortable. Or nervous. Or embarrassed. Or – goddess forbid! – make them laugh.
This is when I started getting serious about using archival footage for finding role models.

  • Snake Hips Tucker: in the 1930 film Crazy House. It doesn’t seem possible to do what he does, but watch his hands – how does he contrast their light fluttering with the crazy stuff in his joints? Or the way he makes walking interesting in Love in the Rough in 1930. He was a frightening, aggressive, violent man who could do amazing, mesmerising things on stage that wouldn’t let you look away.
  • Al Minns Leon James: does more with his face than with his body, but at the same time, his movements are so precise and so carefully planned, they make you watch every second.
  • James Barton: in 1929 film After Seben. There’s that moment at 2.08 when he stops to wipe his shoes, where it feels like he’s disrupting the flow of the routine, and doing something silly and inappropriate. How can I use that idea of disrupting narrative ‘flow’? And he’s a white man in blackface: how can I unravel that and make it tenable? Is it even possible?
  • And my latest obsession, James Berry in Spirit Moves. I like the way his movements are just so strange, especially compared with Sandra Gibson. In this film, I want to be Berry. I’ve seen sultry woman dancing a million times before. But how often do you get to see strange woman dancing?

There are heaps of other clips to reference, and lots of women dancers to reference as well. I really like eccentric dances, because they’re about finding your own way of using your own body to do your own stuff. I could get really into reproducing the stuff I see in films exactly. And I do. But ultimately, what I’m really trying to do is find my own flavah flave. I want to be utterly unique. I find inspiration in all sorts of dance clips, but I don’t want to be a carbon copy of something from ye olden days.

But this post has gone on long enough. To sum up, I want to say that cultural transmission is such a complicated thing. It’s inflected by all sorts of issues, and it’s just not very interesting or useful to dismiss it all as ‘appropriation’. There are ways of negotiating good stuff, here, and I’m not ready to let it go.

References:

  • Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Series in Contemporary Ethnography. Eds. Dan Rose and Paul Stoller. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
  • Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media and Political Culture. Eds. Mary Ellen Brown and Andrea Press. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
  • Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.”
    Cultural Critique (Winter 1993 – 94): 33 – 63.
  • Desmond, Jane C. ed. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. London: Duke University
    Press, 1997.
  • 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.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. “African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives.” Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Jackson, Jonathan David. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.”
    Dance Research Journal 33.2 (2001/2002): 40 – 53.
  • Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses nueva época, número 3. (2002).

‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance

I’m just doing some housekeeping over here in the blog (hence the somewhat dodgy CSS), and have been looking back through unpublished drafts. This is a post that I wrote back in July. I put off publishing it then because I was getting a bit more attention than I felt comfortable with. So I just put it on pause. It’s probably going to be read as controversial, but to my mind it’s really just standard critical engagement with a few texts. But the fact that I’m writing about people in my own community in a way that academics often don’t – ie with a real sense that my words have consequences and aren’t just ‘neutral’ observation – changes the way this will be read. And the way I think about writing this stuff.

So, I guess this is my unpacking and rummaging through a little cultural baggage. I’ve made plenty of apologetic explanations below, though it kind of shits me that I feel so little confidence in my own ideas. But, you know, this is a post about talking about important issues. Right now, in this moment when my government is taking such a shameful stance on refugees (fuck off, you’re not white, we don’t want you here), is continuing with the NT Intervention (fuck off, you’re not white, we don’t want you here) and generally being complete arseholes, I think it’s more important to take a few risks myself.

Structurally, this post begins with Lisa Wade’s article which discusses Sarah and Dax’s ESDC 2011 routine. I tie in (in a limited way), the Two Cousins video clip which starred Ryan Francois and Remy Kouakou Kouame.
Then I explain why I’m not entirely ok with Lisa’s use of ‘black’ and ‘white’ – I want a more critically nuanced approach, one which also looks at how class and gender work in ethnicity. I’m especially frustrated by her use of the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ because it doesn’t prioritise or encourage activism (or speaking out about or engaging with racism). I suggest a more politicised approach helps. Then I suggest that all this makes more sense within cultural context: race and ethnicity in Australia, Britain and America; the way different film texts work within an historical industrial context; reading Sarah and Dax’s performance in relation to their broader online presence (ie their blog). That last bit is important because I tie their talk about bodies, beauty and gender into this performance’s portrayal of bodies, ‘fat’ and masculinity.

I started writing this comment over at Lisa Wade’s post ‘RACE, APPROPRIATION, & LINDY HOP: HOW TO HONOR OUR HEROES’, but I couldn’t really justify such a long comment on someone else’s post. I want to write and write about this, because I’ve spent so much time looking at cultural transmission in lindy hop, and the role digital media plays in this process. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this stuff, and I think I have some responses to Lisa’s question

How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know.

But it’s such a complex issue, and I’m not really sure I have the brains to work through it right now. I certainly want to return to my brief and fairly rubbish post about Slow Club’s Two Cousins clip, but I don’t really have room to think about that right now, either.

So why am I posting at all? I want to jot these ideas down. I want to participate (that is my greatest fault, I think – I hate the thought of missing out!) Also, I LOVE to talk and write. And this is my blog, so I can just ramble on as long as I like.

This is Lisa’s original post. I’m reproducing it here because posts disappear. Please note: I’m using Lisa’s first name rather than her last because that’s how we tend to address peeps in the dance world. I certainly don’t mean any disrespect.

RACE, APPROPRIATION, & LINDY HOP: HOW TO HONOR OUR HEROES
by Lisa Wade, 1 day ago [6 Jully 2011] at 10:00 am

Lindy hopper Jerry Almonte sent along a clip of the first place-winning routine in a division at the European Swing Dance Championships. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. It’s near and dear to my heart; I’ve been a lindy hopper for 13 years (minus that year with a broken leg).

Modern day lindy hop raises difficult questions. In a post I wrote when the beloved Frankie Manning died, titled Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing, I tried to capture the conundrum. I’m going to quote myself extensively, only because this is a tricky issue that deserves real discussion:

Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.

So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people.

So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who (mostly) naively and (always) wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time. On the one hand, it’s neat that the dance is still alive; it’s wonderful to see it embodied, and with so much enthusiasm, so many years later. And certainly no ill will can be fairly attributed to today’s dancers. On the other hand, it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers). Then again, without those dancers, there would likely be no revival at all. And without those clips, however imperfect, the dance might have remained in obscurity, lost with the bodies of the original dancers.

It is this paradox that stirred Jerry to send along the clip of Dax Hock and Sarah Breck performing a routine that was an homage to a famous clip from the movie Day at the Races, featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Here’s the original clip from 1937.

And here’s Dax and Sarah’s routine (Dax, btw, is in a fat suit; an entirely different and equally troublesome issue).

To be as clear as possible, I do believe 100% that Dax and Sarah have no intention to mock and, as essentially professional lindy hoppers, I doubt very much that they’ve never considered the ideas I’ve explained above.

Dax and Sarah are not my target here and, besides, they’re just two people. All conscious lindy hoppers struggle with these issues. My target, and my own personal struggle, is the entire endeavor.

I leave this as an open question for discussion, and one that extends far beyond lindy hop to jazz, blues, rap, and hip hop music; other forms of dance, like break dancing and pop and locking; and even the American obsession with spectating sports that are currently dominated by black athletes. It also extends far past the relationship between blacks and whites, as Adrienne Keene well illustrates in her blog, Native Appropriations.

How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know.
———————
For more, I’d be thrilled if you read my original post, inspired by the passing of Frankie Manning.

Also worth considering is this beautiful music video (Slow Club, Two Cousins) featuring lindy hoppers Ryan Francoise and Remy Kouakou Kouame performing vintage jazz movement. Is it different? What makes it so (other than production value and the race of the dancers)? Can you articulate it? Or is it tacit knowledge?

Inspired in part by The Spirit Moves?

I’m interested in Lisa’s points, but I think some of the key issues need a little expansion. I find some of her conclusions troubling. So I’m going to address them here in a disorganised, ad hoc way. Cool. Not.

Initially, I’m not comfortable with talking about race or ethnicity without also talking about class (and then gender and then sexuality). This becomes particularly important when you consider lindy hop in Japan or Korea or Singapore. The majority of dancers there are not white, but perhaps they are middle class? I think that it’s very, very important to interrogate class as an engagement with social and cultural power; it is not enough to end with skin colour as the defining marker of race or ethnicity.
In a related point, I also have some troubles with the way Lisa talks about ‘white people’ as though they were a homogenous group. I mean, setting aside class, sexuality and a heap of other issues, it’s been fairly stunning to me to see how simply having a group of women perform the Tranky Doo changes its meaning. So I think we need to be careful of using ‘white’ and ‘black’ as blanket terms, lumping masses of people together under single terms. ‘Black’ is especially interesting, as the word works in different ways in Australia, in America, in the UK, in Europe. And then within those countries the word is used in different ways by different groups and individuals.

And I have some concerns about approaching this discussion via the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’. Simply, I think there are other, more useful ways of talking about what’s going on in the clips. I’m with Katrina Hazzard Gordon and Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and bell hooks and Judith Butler… I think we need to engage with the ideology at work here in an actively politicised way. Because these performances aren’t ideologically neutral, nor are the effects of their actions neutral. We need to engage with these issues, we need to unpack the politics, interpersonal as well as institutional. To do otherwise would be to ignore the way these texts embody the wider discourses of the societies in which lindy hop scenes exist, how they function culturally and socially in the modern lindy hop world, and how they articulate power within lindy hop today.

As an example, Lisa suggests that we cannot articulate why a performance might be racist, but we have ‘tacit knowledge’ of what racism is. I find this approach a little lame. Racism does not exist in a black/white, on/off dichotomy. It works in complex ways and a particular text might be articulating racist ideas in a range of ways, might be read as racist because of how it frames or reproduces and supports racism through the relationship between textual elements, reception and then dissemination. I would suggest that not being able to articulate why something ‘feels’ racist should just be the starting point. Don’t stop here! Speaking up about racism is very important – do it!
If I find a particular routine or image discomforting, I don’t say ‘oh, it’s racist because I have a tacit knowledge of racism’. I start analysing the text, the way the text is framed, where I found it, what other texts were circulating at the same time. I start interrogating my own feelings and try to figure out what’s happening. The goal here is that we learn how to articulate our concerns, and then develop the confidence to articulate them. Tacit my arse. Let’s get fucking ACTIVE here!

After all, if we simply say ‘I think it’s racist but I can’t explain why’, how is this any more convincing an argument than ‘I don’t think it’s racist, and I don’t have to explain why’? You need to start expressing your ideas, and exploring your concerns so that you can then say to those ‘I don’t think it’s racist’ people: “I’m suspicious of the fact that we see so many scenes where black dancers are dressed as servants in films. So I reckon we should think twice before we recreate those scenes.”

Cultural context is important. It’s difficult to apply American critical tools for discussing race and cultural transmission to the UK or Europe (where Ryan Francoise and Remy Kouakou Kouame are based), for example. The black British migrant experience is also quite different to the American, and histories of slavery in Britain, America and Australia are quite different. I faced similar challenges discussing lindy hop in Australia, where our discursive engagement with race is quite different to the American example.

It’s very difficult to talk about black American dance in film in the 30s without also talking about slavery, blackface and minstrelsy and segregation in American history. It’s difficult enough addressing these issues in an American setting, but it’s even harder in an Australian context. Many Australians simply aren’t aware of this country’s slave history. A recent debate about the use of blackface on a tv program revealed not only most Australians’ unfamiliarity with blackface in Australia, but with the racial politics at work in blackface in an American context. Nor do many Australians really understand the long standing history of segregation in this country. They simply don’t know that black Australians couldn’t eat, drink, shop, swim or travel in the same spaces as white Australians. So when Australians watch sequences from films like the Day At The Races, with all its intonations of segregation, black face, slavery and so on, these themes don’t resonate in the same way as when an American watches. I guess, here, we also need to talk about audiences and reception as well as cultures of production (and institutions producing and disseminating media texts).

When we’re talking about dance clips, who is watching? Where are they watching? The Slow Club text is a music video. We are talking about Dax and Sarah’s showcase routine as an AV recording of a performance at a dance competition in Europe. I am a white, middle class woman living in a large, well-serviced, safe city in Australia watching these clips on my (reasonably ok) internet connection in my own home on my own computer. I am a dancer, but I am not a brilliant dancer. I am/was a media studies scholar who’s studied and published and taught film and media studies and who wrote a PhD on race/gender/identity in dance and digital media. All these things shape the way I read these texts. What I see will reflect who I am and what I am reading for. How I use these texts will reflect these things as well. I am also reading these texts in relation to each other, and in relation to a vast body of audio-visual recordings of dance. I’m accessing them online, and I’m reading them in relation to other online texts – Sarah and Dax’s blog, Faceplant, the Yehoodi discussion board, the Yehoodi Talk show, Lisa’s blog, etc etc etc. These texts don’t exist in isolation. They are part of and constitute a discourse on/about dance.

The Slow Club clip is interesting because it’s a British band featuring European dancers. The song exists in an international context, and is referencing American television performances by black American dancers. But these performances circulate today again in an international context, and are most familiar to middle class dancers in a number of countries.
I think we need to talk about masculinity as well. Luckily Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall have done a lot of the heavy lifting for discussions about black British masculinity and identity.

While I’ve found the Slow Club clip quite exciting and interesting and posted a little bit about it already, the Dax and Sarah clip is a little more challenging. I cannot help but engage with this performance in reference to the things they’ve written about gender on their own blog. I wrote a couple of things in response to their posts myself: Women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it (Saturday, March 26th, 2011) and Fuck that shit. I’m not wearing no fucking high heeled shoes (Tuesday, April 5th, 2011). I’m sure they are endorsing conventionally gendered notions of physical ‘beauty’. I’m not sure they’re actually engaging reflexively with the way their appearance (when that appearance includes gender and race and class and other identity markers) informs audiences’ readings of their dancing.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m on some sort of anti Dax and Sarah vendetta. I’m not. It’s just that they keep/kept leaping into the public discourse with such enthusiasm. As I wrote in the ‘Women talking about their own bodies…’ post, I think that lindy hoppers need to think through their public personas, and to be aware of the fact that teachers and performers – ‘celebrity lindy hoppers’ – are going to attract a great deal of public scrutiny.

As I write this I’m thinking about my own experiences with public scrutiny. The recent attention to this blog has been difficult to adjust to. I’m not sure I like all this attention. I know I haven’t liked some of the unpleasant comments I’ve had to delete, and it’s definitely been strange being approached by strangers at dance events who feel they ‘know me’ or have a right to regale me with their opinions at 2am while I’m DJing. I haven’t liked that. But then, this is the internet. If I’d wanted to keep my ideas secret, I shouldn’t have posted them…

… wait a minute. Fuck that. It smells a little too much like ‘don’t wear a short skirt or walk about by yourself at night if you want to be safe’. Don’t we all deserve respect and safety, just BECAUSE?

Yes.
Which is why I want to repeat: Sarah and Dax are great dancers, I suppose they could also be great people (I wouldn’t know). But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are some problems with the things they’ve said online and done in dance performances. I feel that we need to engage with the ideas behind and within dancing as well. That stuff isn’t ideologically neutral: dancing IS discourse. And when you put it out there, in a competition, you are inviting discussion. So I’m going to discuss.

Firstly, I certainly don’t think Dax or Sarah intended offence, and I’m almost certain they intended their dancing as homage. That routine also has to be read in reference to other recreations of iconic routines: in this setting, and by these dancers, this routine was almost certainly intended as a mark of respect and admiration for the ‘original lindy hoppers’. It is however, I’m fairly certain, not a critically reflexive performance of racialised identity. In other words, I don’t think Dax and Sarah thought this thing through. Which, really, isn’t that surprising if you read them as young white people who haven’t had to engage with the issues of race and power embodied in the Day At The Races film. When you are a member of an empowered group, you don’t need to think about these things. Because they enable what you do, rather than inhibit you.

The troubling part seems to be the ‘fat suit’ (and what a troubling term that is), and I would have liked to see Lisa place this in the foreground of her article, rather than setting it aside. It seems to me that the suit initiates connotations of ‘humour’, and that is where many of the difficulties with this routine lie. It is difficult to negotiate when and how the ‘joke’ begins in this routine. Fat people are funny? Black fat people are funny? White fat people are funny? I find all these ideas deeply offensive, but also indicative of both the dancers’ ideas about physical beauty (which they have both articulated at length on their blog) and of modern lindy hop’s ideas about ‘beautiful bodies’. Would the routine have prompted such debate if it had presented a more familiar example of male athleticism? If Dax had appeared in his usual muscled, fit, and conventionally attractive body?

I’m wondering if the fat suit works as a sort of ‘blackface’. It’s a performance of a particular type of masculinity which, while it isn’t physically ‘black’, is continually referencing the black bodies dancing in Day At The Races. The very point of that routine is that it requires audiences’ familiarity with that film. Race is there, even if it is ‘invisible’. And I must say, here, that whiteness is as much about race and ethnicity as blackness is. To make whiteness ‘neutral’ or unmarked by race is wrongtown.

But then, how are we supposed to respond to this routine? Are we supposed to ‘laugh at the fat guy’? I know that in most lindy hop culture the muscled, athletic body is valorised (you only need consider the popularity of P90X and Insanity for evidence). If we are supposed to ‘laugh at the fat guy’, is it possible to also admire and valorise this ‘fat body’ at the same time? The crux of the original Day At The Races clip lies in exactly this tension: the dancer’s ability to perform impressive acts of athleticism with his body. Additionally, ‘fatness’ and fleshliness carried different connotative values in 1930s black American culture. So Dax and Sarah bring a different understanding of ‘fat’ to that clip, and to their performances. And audiences watching Dax and Sarah perform are watching from another point in time and culture.

I think gender is important here. The ‘fat suit’ – the ‘fat guy’ – only works in reference to the other male bodies on screen, and most particularly, the female body on-screen and on-stage. Dax in the ‘fat suit’ only works when compared to Sarah’s presentation of highly conventional female ‘beauty’. While she is also in connotative ‘blackface’ (at that same distance Dax is – through reference to the film and in her costuming), she is also in ‘whiteface’, wearing an athletic, healthy, conventionally ‘female’ body. The joke requires the conventionally attractive white/black heterosexual woman as foil for the ‘laugh at the fat guy’ joke. Part of the joke is the implication that ‘the fat guy’ has to be a seriously badarse dancer to secure such an attractive partner, because she’d otherwise have no interest in him.

I suspect that this is where the real conflict lies. One of the most persistent taboos in lindy hop today is disrespecting dancers from the 30s or 40s. It makes us uncomfortable to negotiate the disrespect of ‘laughing at the fat guy’ when this ‘fat guy’ (Dax in costume) is meant to be one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Not only is Dax appropriating a black performance (of awesome dancing) from a film produced in decidedly unjust social context, he is also capitalising on the joke. He is not going to be the butt of this joke – we know he is wearing ‘the fat suit’ – so he is ‘safe’. He’s ‘not actually fat’. He doesn’t need to physically experience what it is to be ‘fat’ in modern American culture. He takes no risks. But at the same time he can also claim credit for the dancing ability he demonstrates – it’s good dancing, he is a good dancer. This is also where their performance fails, really, to realise the goals of the original performance. The original dance scene was impressive because he was a ‘fat guy’ who danced well despite/with his body. We never forget that Dax is ‘wearing the fat suit’. He has nothing to ‘overcome’, here.

[I would to talk about a Yehoodi talk show interview (16 March 2011) where Dax talks about dancing with an injury on So You Think You Can Dance, and how this is different to ‘dancing fat’, but I don’t really have space or time or brainz to do it. Except to say that there’s something interesting to be written about dance, injuries, perceptions of injuries, pain and masculinity.]

There is the chance, though, that Dax and Sarah didn’t intend this reading. Perhaps they are working to present an alternative portrayal of white masculinity. The physically large, well-fleshed heterosexual man as desirable, desiring, powerful and admirable subject. Perhaps they are trying to say “Look – ‘fat’ is, after all, only an arbitrary evaluation of physical size articulating western consumer values and notions of ‘beauty’.” Perhaps they are trying to comment reflexively on bodies and embodiment in dance. Perhaps. I’m not convinced. The thing is, this clip is existing in the same discourse as their blog, where they have both repeatedly articulated conventionally heterosexist and patriarchal ideas about gender, sex and beauty.

They are not, unfortunately, fucking over the patriarchy here.

Where do I leave this discussion? With a loud sigh and a bit of head shaking, I’m afraid. I don’t really have a solid ‘solution’. I think it’s a really excellent thing that we are actually talking about this issue openly in lindy hop today. It’s something that’s bothered me as long as I’ve been dancing. I mean, there are some problematic things happening here as well. I’d be very surprised if Australian dancers actually participated in this online discussion about race and dance or engaged with it in their dancing.

[EDIT: wtf does Lisa mean by “white people more or less on their racial own”?! When the fuck are people ever on their ‘racial own’? And what does that even MEAN?]

gimme de kneebone bent

I do think, even after a bunch of years, that Joann Kealiinohomoku’s article ‘An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance’ is the most useful thing I’ve ever read about dance. That, matched up with Jacqui Malone’s talk about kneebones. The basic idea is that culture and ethnicity are made very clear in the way we move our bodies. In dance, but in other places as well. These two were very important references in my development of ideas, but there are some other really useful sources that help develop my thinking (see list below). I wrote about Kealiinohomoku and Malone in a post called black – white dance in 2006, but it’s pretty much the foundation for everything I write about dance, and everything I think about dance when I’m dancing. And why I get really annoyed by lindy hoppers who point their toes.

The other half of this is of course Gender as a social construct.

All together, they add up to these points: the way you move is a product not only of biology and physiology (ie the stuff you were born with), but more importantly, a product of lifestyle and culture (the things you do with – and have done to – your body).

NB I was just looking over some early posts about my phd, which were written around 2004/2005. Before youtube. It really blows my mind that I did all this video-analysis work without youtube. Sheeeeet. It just shows how valuable file sharing sites like dance.poy were, and how much we owed to the dancers who made and then shared videos and DVDs of vintage clips.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Â 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 nueva época, número 3. (2002).

[Edit: I think this is partly why I’m not a fan of high heels for lindy hop. They lengthen the leg and make the foot look really small.]

(Try To) Write About Jazz


(Photo of Amiri Baraka by Pat A. Robinson, stoled from here).

Long time no post. I’ve been busy with a few different projects lately, most of them impeded by vast quantities of randomly-generated anxiety. I’m bossing some DJs for MLX11, I’m bossing some DJs locally, I’m sorting some solo dance practices, I’m looking at venues, I went to Church City Blues, I’m doing lots and lots of exercises to help my knees, I’m trying to improve my own DJing, and I’m working on at least two websites. They’re actually all the fun things. Also, we’ve started cooking meat at our house. The less said about that the better.

Perhaps the most challenging part of all this is trying to get my brain in gear for writing coherent sentences. More than one at a time. Ones that link up and make paragraphs. Anything more than that is really a little too ambitious right now. Writing. Why are you so demanding? The hardest thing in the world is writing properly when your brain won’t stop buzzing and fretting. Dance workshops? Actually quite good when you can’t make your brain shush. Forty minutes of slow, careful strengthening and stretching exercises every day? Quite calming, actually. But anything creative or requiring sustained creative thought – choreography, writing, editing… that shit is impossible. So here is something messy. Because it’s like learning to dance fast. If you never actually do it, you’ll never be any good at it.

Right now I’m thinking about writing about music. Again. I think it’s because I like to write about music. I’m also a woman. Wait – that last part is important (have vag will type). And because the things people write and say about music shape the way dancers and DJs think about music. And that affects the way they dance to music, which bands and DJs they hire to play their events, whether and how much they pay musicians and DJs, and what sort of music they put into the event programs. I know this is kind of old school literary studies/cultural studies/media studies stuff. And I even wrote about it in my PhD.

But now, I want to write and think about it again. Because I am organising DJs for MLX, and because I’ve noticed a clear trickle down (or bleed out?) affect from the developing online dancer discourse to the face-to-face. Yes. My PhD has come to life. Basically, Faceplant, blogs, podcast, youtube and all those other goodies are having a clear effect on face-to-face dance practice. Dancers are writing more about music (and dance), Faceplant has increased the penetration of this writing, and dancers are now reading more about music and dance. And this is having clear effects on how dance events are run. And on the interpersonal and institutional relationships and power dynamics of the international lindy hop scene. Yes, I will make that call. I can’t help it. I’m trained to see words as articulating power and ideology. And discourse as at once articulating ideology and creating it. I CAN’T HELP IT. I HAVE LEARNT TO USE MY BRAIN. ALL THIS THINKING WILL NO DOUBT RESULT IN THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILISATION AND RISE OF OUR FELINE OVERLORDS (WORSHIP THEM).

So what I’m saying, here, is that I’m getting that niggly tingly itchy feeling in the back of my brain that tells me there’s something going on that I need to pay attention to. Some dots are being joined. Unfortunately not by my conscious, rational brain, so you’re going to have to muddle through some fairly irritatingly vague, malformed or downright wrongtown blog posts til I get it together. If this was a magazine or an academic journal you’d be reading coherent sentences. But it’s not. So you’re getting dodgy stuff, but sooner. The fact that I’m still managing all those buzzing-brain anxiety issues means that it’s going to take me longer than usual to make this all into proper paragraphs. But then, I figure it’s a goddamn improvement on the past few months that I’m actually able to set fingertips to keyboard and make with the sentencing.

Words: why are you so demanding?!

I’ve been trying to get an idea of how jazz journalism works, both in historical and contemporary contexts. I’ve read a bit about the history of jazz journalism/criticism, a lot of which is really concerning. Lots of white, middle class guys writing about jazz, to paraphrase Amiri Baraka. Very few not-men, very few not-white anyones. To quote Baraka:

Most jazz critics began as hobbyists or boyishly brash members of the American petite bourgeoisie, whose only claim to any understanding about the music was that they knew it was different; or else they had once been brave enough to make a trip into a Negro slum to hear their favorite instrumentalists defame Western musical tradition. Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middle-brows as well. (Baraka, Amiri, “Jazz and the white critic”, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. O’Meally, Robert G. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998: 137-142. pp 140)

Yeah! Baraka brings the smackdown! Old school 60s politics style!

What I have read has, for the most part, been really annoying. It’s kind of frustrating to see jazz studies – jazz criticism – failing to really get a grasp on gender and race politics. It’s like the 60s didn’t happen for so many of these guys. And it’s maddening to read the arguments that jazz histories emphasising black contributions are ‘racist’. Reminds me of those fuckwit people who try to argue that affirmative action policies are ‘reverse sexism’. …wait, I’m going to derail here for a bit of a rant:

IF we were all starting from the same place on the running track, it might be reverse sexism. But, dumbarse, we are working within PATRIARCHY, so affirmative action policy isn’t ‘reverse-sexism’, it’s simply an attempt to get us all at least onto the running track together. Of course, you’ve got to be a real ninja to actually pull off that sort of affirmative action effectively. So it’s ok, dickhead. Your power and privilege really aren’t in a whole lot of danger. We still have quite a bit of work to do. And anyway, most of our most important successes have been sneaky, and you haven’t noticed them. But, FYI, just like that beefcake guy in that rubbish film Crazy Stupid Love says, convincing women they’re learning to pole dance ‘for fitness’, that’s not a feminist victory. Convincing women stripping for money is empowering: that is not feminism. That’s old school sexism. So you’ve pretty much scored a point there.

…but back to my story.

Some of these jazz writer guys are entirely lacking in a sense of cultural and social context. And they really, really need to do a few introductory gender/race studies classes. Hellz, some introductory literary studies subjects.

But it’s worth having a look about at what has been written about race and class and gender and ethnicity in reference to and within jazz criticism. Queer studies? Yeah, don’t hold your breath, buddy.

So there is some critical (in the sense that these authors are engaging with the ideology and assumptions at work, rather than ‘being negative’) attention to jazz histories and jazz criticism/journalism. I’ve written a little bit about it before (in the post the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more and New Orleans jazz?), but I’m certainly not well read on this topic.


(Photo of Ellen Willis (with Bessie Smith), feminist and music journalist stoled from Ellen Willis tumblr)

That was made quite clear when I bitched (yet again) about the lack of women jazz journalists on twitter. @hawleyrose suggested I talk to @elementsofjazz (herself a woman jazz writer), who then hooked me up with Nate Chinen’s article On women in jazz (criticism) and Angelika Beener’s article Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing on Jazz. Then I followed a million links from each of those articles to many more articles. The bottom line, here is that I mouthed off without researching the topic properly. I fell into that old ‘invisible women’ trap. Because I didn’t see women writing for big name jazz publications, I figured they didn’t exist. Just like that arsehat who recently bleated that there weren’t any women bloggers or tweeters writing about politics. With that bloke, the problem was a) that he defined ‘politics’ using the usual, very limited party-politics-institutions-and-polls definition and b) that he didn’t bother with bloggers and tweeters outside his usual sphere.

So my problem was a) I wasn’t looking in the right places (I was only looking in the conservative ‘official’ jazz journalism public sphere), and b) I hadn’t bothered to do much work to find those women journalists. Now I know better. And I’m delighted to be wrong. There are lots of women jazz journalists. Particularly when you broaden your definitions and include independent media, especially online media.

I think it’s worth talking about the history of jazz criticism here. And how small independent print publications were so important to the development of jazz criticism and writing from the turn of the century. But it’s also worth giving an eye (or ear) to the larger print publications like Esquire and Downbeat. I’ve written about this before, quite a few times, so I won’t go into it here (search for ‘magazines’ and you’ll find some old posts, or follow the links from More Esquire Talk).

What I do want to say, here, is that I’ve been thinking perhaps I should be asking “Are there any women writing about early jazz?” I’m wondering if the usual industrial and labour divisions of the early 20th century made it harder not only for women to get published, but for women to get read in the early days. And if there’s a resistance to writing about early jazz in the modern jazz publications and sites. Surely I’m once again voluntarily making women writers invisible. Surely. Time for more research, yes? YES!