all of the things

It’s 14*C here, but it feels 7, which is VERY COLD for Sydney. I hate the cold, which is why I didn’t like living in Melbourne, where the lindy hop is better, but the weather is not.

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Sydney is beautiful. It is that city you see in the tourism ads – beautiful beaches a short city bus trip from the CBD. It has all the culture stuff Melbourne does, only people in the galleries and bars and music venues are wearing thongs or tshirts and their scarves are affectations not necessity.

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I really don’t have much to write about right now. I’m a bit busy – got a few events to run (three at last count), classes tonight to prepare for, practice tomorrow to think about. But I do have a new CD or two. I saw lovely Leigh at Unity Hall on the weekend and he gave me his band‘s new CD ‘Australiana’. It’s not danceable music at all, which is really quite nice.

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My copy of the Midnight Serenaders‘s new CD ‘A Little Keyhole Business’ arrived, and it’s not so great, which is disappointing. I reckon their second album is the best. But they’re a fun band, and I bet they’re superfun live, so it’s nice to support them.

I’m waiting on a CD or two from a Very Famuss Musician to arrive. Their publicist asked if I wanted one, and I assume she wanted me to review it or talk it up or whatevs. I’ll write a review when it gets here, and we’ll see what it’s like. I have to say: there’s nothing more exciting than a Very Famuss Musician you admire asking if they can send you a copy of their CD. Even if it is their publicist asking.

[Meanwhile, I’m listening to the New Sheiks’ new CD ‘Australiana’ right now, and it’s so very good. I had thought about writing a post about the way I/we listen to music across genres, and how musicians play across genres, and how that’s important, but I don’t have the brain for it right now.]

The little red counter on my email icon keeps ticking over. People are responding to the storm of emails I sent out yesterday. I’d finally gotten it together after a couple of weeks of dodgy health, and did some admin work. Working those contacts. The biggest part of my workload is maintaining contacts. With musicians, with venues, with other event organisers, with sound engineers, with visiting (or possibly-visiting) dance teachers, with local dancers, with artists and designers… there’s really a lot of leg (and mouth) work to be done. Lots of people to talk to and telephone and email. And nothing’s harder when you’re feeling a bit rough than getting it together to have a sensible conversation with someone you don’t really know.

I’ve stopped reading a lot of the blog posts and bits and pieces discussing gender in the lindy hop world. Mostly because most of them aren’t terribly good. I don’t think everyone should learn to lead and follow. But I do think every lindy hopper should be able to solo dance competently and confidently. You can draw your own euphemism if you please. I don’t see the point in arguing for women leads. If you can’t accept the fact that women are as competent leads as men, then you probably don’t know much about lindy hop. Or men and women. And you aren’t worth my time. Women should just lead if they want to. The end. I reckon it’s more important for the male leads to realise just how much better most of the women leads around them are, and lift their game. More importantly, particularly in scenes with fewer leads than follows, the male leads need to get up off their arses and lift their game: the women dancers around them are so much better than they are, they’re turning to solo dance out of desperation. Desperate for a challenge. In sum, the best way to maintain the heteronormativity of lindy hop is for men to be really fucking good leads. Right?
No, I’m not convinced either.

I haven’t done a heap of DJing lately. The Roxbury, one of Sydney’s only proper dancer-run lindy hop events has folded forever. Sad times. That was my favourite DJing venue. There’s still Swing Pit, but I quite liked having an event I could go to and have no responsibilities – just turn up late if I wanted, dance as much as I wanted, leave when I wanted. And if there was a problem with the sound, I didn’t have to fix it.
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I did buy a copy of Ellingtonia, the Duke Ellington discography. It’s great, but the format of each entry is kind of annoying – instead of listing each musician by name, their initials are used. This sucks, because it means you have to flick back to the guide to figure out who’s who. Makes sorting your music collection really tedious. But then, I think it was hand-typed. It’s certainly self-published. So typing out every name would’ve been a bum.
Duke Ellington, aye. Just when I think I’ve gotten over him, I hear something new, and he draws me back in. I’m really enjoying him in 1941 atm. Again. My current favourite songs is ‘Goin’ out the Back way’ from ’41, which I heard a DJ playing in a smallish dance comp somewhere in the states or Canada. It’s the perfect lindy hopping song. Which of course is the perfect solo dancing song.

Solo dancing has really changed my perception of tempo and speed. Nothing’s too fast when you’re dancing on your own. Which I guess relates to the challenges of following: when you follow, you can’t really change the ‘speed’ or ‘tempo’ at which you and your partner are dancing. The lead gets to decide how many steps you both take. Whether you swing out like crazy people or just step gently through some nice rhythms. When you dance on your own, you get to decide everything. But this has also informed my leading lately. And I’m simply not a terribly talented follow. I would quite like to be a brilliant follow, but it just doesn’t gel for me. How even does following work?

Perhaps my biggest problem while following is that that I just forget I’m not leading, and I introduce steps or rhythms which are ignoring what the lead is doing. And that’s not cool, whether you’re leading or following. So, you know. Leading. That’s where my brain is at. I actually think that you have to decide whether you’re a lead or a follow, if you really want to level up your dancing.

Sure, you can do both and that’s cool. But if you want to get really good at one, you have to dance that one exclusively for a while at least. Because there’s a significant part of your dancing which isn’t conscious decision making. It’s an unconscious response to what’s going on. When I’m leading, I’m responding to what the follow is doing (where their weight is, the tension in their body, the shapes they’re making, the rhythm or timing they’ve got going on), and I respond by initiating something that develops their theme. When I’m following, respond by responding. Sure, I can bring my shit, but someone has to lead, and someone has to follow. They’re different roles, and particularly when you’re dancing at higher tempos, you gotta have a clear idea of who’s doing what. This opinion could really just be an expression of aesthetic preferences: I like to see a clear lead and follow in a partnership, not a muddied, blurry mutual exchange. Not because of politics, but because of physics and biomechanics. And rhythm.

Lennart Westerlund says this thing: “yes, you have the steps, but you do not have the rhythm. I cannot see the rhythm.” He said this about a million times while he was here, and eventually someone in a small teachers’ session asked him “Can you demonstrate the difference? I don’t understand what you mean by ‘see the rhythm’.” So he danced a phrase or two where the rhythm wasn’t clear. Then he danced a couple of phrases where it was very clear. It was quite stunning: I felt all my muscles jump and leap in a real, physical Pavlov’s lindy hopper effect.
So when I watch someone dancing, I don’t want to see a sort of vague blurring of steps. I want to see the rhythms, the shapes, the transfers of weight. I don’t just want to see which foot a dancers weight is on, I want to be able to see which part of the dancer’s foot is on the ground, and whether or not their weight is committed to that particular part of the foot. I want to see muscles recruited efficiently, and turned off when they’re not needed. I really want to see a nice, swinging timing. And I want to feel that leap and jump in my own muscles as I watch. So, I guess I want to see someone lead, and someone follow. I don’t care if you’re taking turns in each role during the dance, but you can’t both drive. Someone has to lead, someone has to follow. Doesn’t mean the follow isn’t also contributing (and I’ve gone into how in detail before). Means that you’re doing lindy hop, which prefers requires participation from each dancer.

Lennart says that too: “someone is leading and someone is following.” I don’t think he cared who was doing what (if he did, he was tactfully discrete with his opinions :D ), he just wanted to see a lead and a follow. But Lennart also made another lovely point: “I don’t want to be speaking all the time. That is boring. I want to hear what my partner has to say.” All of that is of course wrapped up in his phrase, “We must make friends with the music.” What a lovely thought: that we come together, as partners, through friendship with art and the creative work of other people.

HIPPIES!

To be honest, I’m still working through the concepts Lennart Westerlund introduced me to in May. Was it only two months ago? But Lennart’s relaxed, gentle approach to rhythm and timing has changed my brain. He could be dancing very simple, gentle, relaxed figures, but stuff them full of highly complex rhythms and timing. It’s a fabulous idea, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years, and which guides the content of our classes. I’m sure the more ‘intermediate’ dancers find it terribly boring and naff – they just want ‘new moves!’ when I’m thinking ‘moves shmooves – give me an outline and I’ll fill it in with far more interesting stuff.’

I’ve noticed that the very best lindy hoppers in the world (the Swedes, and Skye) tend to use a lot of quite simple figures, but their timing is supremely complex. And that complexity is dictated by the music. People like Ellington. ‘Rockin in Rhythm’, your phrasing is so difficult. Yes, they do use complex moves as well, but the fundamental assumption of good lindy hop is that a simple shape (a swing out, a tuck turn, a circle) is also something highly sophisticated if you make it so.

The thing I like about this relationship between simple and complex, is that these guys looks so relaxed when they dance. Everything they do looks easy. Until you try to reproduce it. There are quite a few dancers around at the moment who are quite fabulous, but their dancing looks so overwrought. They look like they’re Working. So. Hard. I want it to look so easy; I think ‘oh, I can do that’ and then I try, and realise that it’s not humanly possible. And of course, the relationship between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ is a little like the relationship between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’. I’ve written about that a lot, so I won’t go into it again. Except to say, that the most important part of lindy hop is being relaxed in your body, until you need to turn a muscle or muscle group on, then that part of you is on.

I think that this is part of what makes the ‘swing’ happen. Don’t rush. We’re not rushing. We’re cool. We’re not hurrying. It’s uncool to hurry.

I didn’t mean this post to become a big spiel about dancing. I’m doing a LOT of reading at the moment. Stacks and stacks. I’m on GoodReads as dogpossum if you want to talk books. One of the things I am reading more of at the moment is comics. I’ve always been a bit of a low-level fan, but I’m frustrated by how quickly they read. I need more bang for my buck – at least more than an hour from a book.

I’ve been reading Wonder Woman lately, particularly the Gail Simone series starting with The Circle. LOVE.

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I quite like the New 52 Wonder Woman

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And I REALLY like the New 52 Batwoman. The art is just gorgeous.

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I wasn’t struck on the New 52 Batgirl (boring).

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But of course, the new Ms/Captain Marvel is THE BEST EVER.

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And I am totally on this bandwagon:

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I’ve also been reading Saga, which I quite like, but I’m just not a Vaughan fangirl.

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I’m a fan of trade paperbacks because individual comics just don’t last long enough. And, to be honest, I find the writing in a lot of comics that I’m reading jus doesn’t come close to the good SF that I read. And I read a lot of SFic and SFant.

But Wonder Woman. She’s the best. Especially when she’s drawn by Cliff Chiang.

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Writing this post, I realise I’ve heaps more books and music and television too talk about! But I have things to do.

…so if you want to talk about Hemlock Grove or Teen Wolf or The Fosters or The Returned or Top of the Lake, assume I’m interested!

dancesplaining

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(image: “Ultracrepidarian: A person who gives opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge” from The Project Twins’ A-Z of Unusual Words)

I reckon this post about dancesplaining is good stuff. I like the way Jason expands the idea of mansplaining. Mansplaining is about power, and dancesplaining is about power. I like the way Jason has expanded the idea of explaining-as-power. He’s making the point that this act of power isn’t about biological sex, it’s about social power. This seems to be something that a bunch of commentary on sex and gender in dance getting about at the moment doesn’t seem to grasp.

In other words, while we might associate particular characteristics or qualities with masculinity or femininity (eg violence or aggression or technical know-how might be associated with masculinity in anglo-celtic discourse), they aren’t actually biologically determined. Men aren’t naturally aggressive or violent or good with tools (lol) because they have a bunch of testosterone or a dick or a brain wired in a certain way. Men often demonstrate violence or aggression or are the first to have a go with a tool because the society they grew up in encouraged them to be that way.

So mansplaining isn’t biologically determined, it’s an act of power, where the person explaining assumes they know more, and assume they have the right to speak/explain. When this explaining person is a man, explaining something to a woman, they’re often taking advantage of the fact that women in this same cultural context are brought up to be ‘polite’ and to avoid confrontation. That means avoiding interruption or telling an explainer that they already know this stuff. Avoiding conflict can also be about helping other people save face (and avoid embarrassment or loss of face/status). Many women help men save face to avoid conflict because in their experience conflict can often involve physical conflict: an angry, embarrassed man can be a violent man.

Danceplaining and mansplaining isn’t often malicious or deliberately dictatorial. It’s usually an unconscious demonstration of discursive power. Just as a man mightn’t stop to worry about whether that guy who just got on the train is about to sit next to them and make suggestive comments, a man who explains mightn’t stop to think about whether he should shoosh. In both examples, men have lived with the experience and idea that they will be safe on public transport, that they won’t be harassed, and that it’s ok to explore or explain their thinking out loud. Both of these public behaviours are about status, power and confidence in public space. They’re both also about the power of feeling safe enough to explore a new idea in front of other people.

If you want to have a bit of a read about the ‘mansplain’ concept, I suggest starting with Rebecca Solnit’s piece ‘Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way’.

I like Jason’s piece because makes it clear that explaining – dancesplaining – isn’t necessarily about gender. While men might do it it women a lot in class, women quite often return the favour and explain to men why they’re doing things wrong. But I do think it’s about power, and I’d argue that certain types of power can be gendered (or associated with a particular gender identity) in certain contexts. So dancesplaining is often perpetrated more by men, and as most dance classes have more men leading than women, we see more leads/men dancesplaining to follows/women than vice versa. I’d probably add that a male lead teacher should be particularly careful not to paraphrase and repeat a point his female follow teaching partner has just made in class settings. That’s a type of mansplaining too.

Jason extends this thinking to explore how this type of behaviour in class affects the way we might think about leading and following generally.
I’d argue that dancesplaining (as a gendered behaviour) works with other gendered behaviour to create a continuum of gender and patriarchy. This is how discourse and ideology work: if it was just one little thing that bothered us (and we could fix with a quick solution), then feminism would be redundant within a couple of hours. But patriarchy is complicated. This is why I have troubles with the recent posts about ‘sexism’ on Dance World Takeover: the thinking is too simple, and the solutions are too simple. A reshuffling of ideas about connection isn’t going to magically solve sexism in a community. It might be one point at which we can engage with particular ideas about gender and power, but tackling that one thing this time will not quickly or easily ‘solve’ patriarchy.

If we are to engage with gender in the lindy hop world in a constructive way, we need to think about all sorts of stuff: clothes, notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘strength’, discussions about food and ‘health’, teaching practices, competition formats (eg how is a jack and jill competition judged, and how does this process articulate ideas about gender?), the role of solo dance, the place of aerials, how we manage and think about injuries and pain, ethnicity and race and how we think and talk about it in dance, talk about sex and sexuality in dance partnerships, labour relations and the role of ‘volunteers’ and unpaid labour, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Gender: it’s complicated.

This is why, though, I’m quite pleased by Jason’s piece. He takes one behaviour (or use of language and power), and then draws out the effects and related behaviours and thinking within a culture (and cultural practice). I’m especially delighted by the way he presents his own thinking and behaviour. This really is what I would call being a feminist ally. Doing feminist work. I am also very pleased by the way this thinking makes clear that feminist work can also be socialist work, and also be the work of pacifists and human rights activists. Feminism might be centred on gender, but we can’t talk about gender without also talking about economics, ethnicity, sexuality, violence, and so on.

I was especially delighted by this paragraph in the ‘establish permission’ section:

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

I think this is a gorgeous illustration of how undoing the power dynamics (and hierarchies) of pedagogic discourse in dance can work to undo other dodgy power dynamics in a dance community. The class is, of course, where we socialise new dancers – where we teach them not only how to dance, but how to be in a dance community. It’s something I need to remind myself: though I might be a teacher, I don’t automatically have the right to correct someone’s dancing in class. And how I should correct them needs to be carefully thought about, to promote and encourage mutual respect.

If you’re curious, I’ve written other posts where I’m pretty much annotating the development of my ideas about teaching. I’m only new to teaching dance and boy am I making a lot of mistakes.
Dealing with problem guys in dance classes: where I write a huge, long, rambly post exploring my ideas about this, and nut out some strategies.
Self Directed Learning: where I look at alternatives to the formal dance class, and how this might destabilise hierarchies, and also complement traditional learning models.
teaching challenges: routines, structure and improvisation in class: where I remind myself that rote-learning is about power and hierarchy, and not in the spirit of lindy hop.
Teaching challenges 2: drilling and memorising: kind of like that previous post, but with some dodgy referencing of pedagogic lit.
Valuing the process rather than the product: where I talk about a bunch of things, but most importantly, about the importance of being wrong and making mistakes.

90 minutes

I have no evidence or further reading to support any of the claims in this article, but it’s interesting.

Basically, it argues: work for 90 minutes or less, then take a break. Then repeat.

I’m personally of the opinion that no meeting or class should be longer than an hour. After that, we start to get stupid. More importantly, an hour time limit forces you to focus and get shit done in a reasonable, structured way. No time to waste babbling on about rubbish.

I’ve used this approach in planning dance workshops weekends. I don’t let classes run any longer than 1 hour and 15 minutes, and I insist on a rest (of at least 15 minutes) between sessions. That rest has to include changing tasks – you’re not allowed to practice or film or whatevs. You have to eat or sit down or talk or go to the toilet. Doesn’t matter what it is, you’ve just got to change tasks.

This can be challenging if you’re teaching: when you’re in the zone, any break feels like an interruption that might ‘break’ the zone. But it’s really better to take that break, reset and come back in fresh.

When I’m writing, I usually sit down and write solidly for hours at a time. I forget to go to the toilet. I don’t eat. This is how I got my PhD done. But that sort of obsessive work isn’t helpful. Even if you do really enjoy that feeling of being in the zone, with the rest of the world blocked out.

I’m also of the opinion that a dance practice session shouldn’t be any longer than 90 minutes. And, unsurprisingly, I guess, I find 90 minutes is my optimal DJing set length. I can and have gone longer, but I find I get in, do good work, then come out a winner if I keep it to 90 minutes. A ten minute break in the middle… now, that would be good.

On fucking up in front of a crowd

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(pic by Beth Evans)

My first instinct, when discovering I’ve fucked up, is to hide the fact. You know, cover it up.
When I was first learning fall off the log, I’d been quite ill with flu, and it was a really hot, humid Brisbane night. I don’t quite know what happened, but everything went black, and I’m suddenly on my arse on the floor. I leap to my feet and carry on like nothing ever happened.
I’m fairly certain that everyone was onto me.

Since then, I’ve made huge, public errors in many ways, and in front of many different audiences. I’ve been the only person in a solo jazz performance fucking up the choreography (I’m usually the only person in a solo jazz performance fucking up the choreography). I’ve sworn loudly into a microphone at a large, public gig. And there was that time when I was at the end of a semester, lecturing for the first time, on my own, pounding out a lecture a week on a range of topics I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. We get to week 10, on The Media In War Time, and I realise, in an exhausted, confused and overworked daze, the night before the lecture, that there hasn’t just been one ‘gulf war’. Furthermore, I have no idea where Afghanistan is, beyond the fact that it’s somewhere ‘in the middle east’. So I go through the lecture and carefully reword things to be precisely imprecise on the geography of the region. I remember, as I’m banging on in front of a group of 200 bored undergraduates, exhausted and strung out on powerpoint, looking up and seeing that row of middle aged women students in hijab making the ‘what the fuck, young person?’ face. Madames, I’m afraid I had no idea what the fuck was up. And I apologise.

More recently (and most embarrassingly), in fact just this year, I realised that the dancer in this photo that I had thought was Al Minns, was actually Leon James:

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Fifteen fucking years of lindy hop, writing and talking about jazz dance, teaching solo jazz and pontificating about uses of history, and I find out NOW that that guy is NOT Al Minns, he is LEON JAMES. Face fucking palm, right?

At the end of the day, though there are really only a couple of ways you can respond to all this. You can leave, immediately, and never look back, retreating to some sort of solo jazz cave in the far western suburbs of Sydney. Or you can quietly continue teaching and crapping on, just with new facts, and never acknowledging your mistake. Who, me, not able to identify one of the most famous dancers of the age? No way, man, I am a SPECIALIST.

But all that kind of sucks. You just carry the shame of mistake around with you, feeling embarrassed and kind of anxious about the whole thing.

That’s all very tempting. But it’s also crap.

This is my preferred method:

Discover the Facts.

Groan. Shout a bit about my own stupidity. Scrabble around, double checking. Get confirmation from someone who Knows (aka a mentor type person whose opinion you respect). Suffer in my jocks for a bit. Then tell people, because it’s both excruciating and also hilarious. There really isn’t anything funnier than pride taking a fall, and usually the circumstances of that fall are totes funny. My general feeling about public humiliation is that it stops being painful and humiliating when you tell someone about it and make yourself laugh.

The freeking middle east, Hamface.

AL MINNS, Hamface.

But what if you are teaching a group of people you’ll be working with every week for the foreseeable future, and you realise you’ve given them wrong information, or you just don’t know the answer? And you’re trying to contribute good knowledge about dance history to your local scene, so we can stop listening to Wham at dances and making up horseshit about lindy hop history?

Probably the most helpful thing I’ve learnt about teaching was in a tertiary education teaching skills seminar, where we looked at the idea of teachers not as reservoirs of all knowledge, injecting it into students heads, but as guides to learning. The students are the ones doing the learning, and our job is to make that work easier for them.
With this in mind, it gets much easier to say, when a student asks a question and you’re flummoxed: “Sorry, man, I have no idea. But I reckon we could find out if we consulted X source. Or why don’t we have a go now, and see how it works?” and then you try that thing, and see if you can figure it out together.
In a dance context, this approach is made easier by adding in an extra element: make mistakes confidently. As Ramona says, a dance class is a laboratory, and this is where we experiment. We are here to try new stuff, and when we’re trying out new things and discovering, there really isn’t any right and wrong. Just various shades of new and interesting.

So what do I do when I discover I’ve taught something that’s completely wrong?

First, I ask myself, ‘Was it all completely wrong?’ Sure, that stuff I explained about the way your hips work in shorty george mightn’t have been strictly accurate when it comes to the mechanics of a shorty george, but was that general approach to biomechanics and rhythm completely wrong? I don’t think so.
Secondly, I remind myself: you are a guide to learning. You’re there to facilitate students’ learning. This isn’t all about you. So you need to stop assuming that they’re all focussed on you. You need to remind yourself, that we’re all there to focus on our own learning, on having fun, and on making mistakes.
Thirdly: just fucking tell them. They really don’t give a shit. They’re worried about the cut of their trousers, or whether that hot person likes them, or if their house mate will have eaten all the bread. They got other priorities. I mean, YOLO, right? Life’s too short to carry around a bundle of anxiety and worry about one tiny fucking mistake. Move on!

In summary, then, I find it both frightening and powerful to approach teaching as thought I will mistakes, and I will be incorrect. That’s the whole point. I’m here to learn too, and if I already knew what I was doing, the whole thing’d be super boring. My goal should be to change and grow and learn as a teacher. Or pontificator.

In practical terms, this is how I handle these things:

  • When my teaching partner and I are explaining something, and I just don’t know what I’m doing, I say so.
    And I turn to my partner and I say “I’m not sure how to explain this. Do you have an idea?” and they usually do. If they don’t, then we all LOL and we just move on. Yolo, right? And we’re here to dance, not fret about something we don’t know.
  • Don’t try to make your class a seamless, perfect engine.
    It’s actually great to say to your teaching partner “I think we should try this to music, what do you think?” and for them to say, “Mmm, maybe just one more time without music?” It’s great because it takes the pressure off you (you don’t have to be perfectly right all the time!), it models problem solving and partnership interaction for the students (this is how you work on stuff in class with your partner), and it lets the students see how you think about teaching and learning – you’re letting them see the sausage being made. So to speak. You are inviting them in, and not presenting a polished, impersonal facade.
  • If you find something hard or challenging, you say so. “I find this bit tricky. So let’s go through it slowly, and we’ll figure it out.” Usually they find it easier than I do, which I find very helpful, because I suddenly do understand. And again, you’re modelling helpful learning and in-class behaviour strategies. It’s all good.
  • If you teach something, then realise you were all wrong, it’s ok to come back and tell your students.
    Sure, it feels like it’s going to be humiliating to admit you were wrong, but dood – you aren’t really the centre of their universe. They’re not going to be crushed because you fucked up that one time. Tell ’em. I do it like this: “You know how last week I said that we start on the left foot/that was Al Minns/Afghanistan is in ‘the middle east’? Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate.” And then I explain what I’ve learnt, and how I learnt it: “I emailed blahblah and got the good oil” or “I compared a bunch of videos and photos from these reliable sources” or “I looked at a goddamn map.”
    And then everyone groans, you LOL a bit, and then you revise what you did last week. You can be sure that this particular dance step/conversation/point of geopolitical history will stick in their brains forever. And ever.

…and so on and so on. It’s ok to make mistakes, yo. But it’s not really ok to expect to be perfect, and to not acknowledge your own mistakes. It’s also not ok to stew on your errors and let them consume your thoughts. Dancing, unlike the history of digital media practices in the gulf war, is fun. So let it be fun, and don’t seek out ways to freak yourself out.

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(pic by only fools and vikings via mindlessmunkey)

NB: I spent quite a bit of time on Mindlessmunkey’s tumblr this week, and it shows. The man makes gorgeous, thoughtful internet, and it inspires me.

Who is Marshall Stearns?

I’m writing some notes for our students on FB, so I figured I’d let the content free, here in the unfenced part of the internet.

Who?

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Marshall Stearns.
Stearns was a jazz music and dance historian and reseacher, who was involved in the founding of the Institute of Jazz Studies.

Most modern day lindy hoppers and jazz dancers would know him for his book Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, which he co-authored (and researched) with his wife Jean Stearns.

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Jazz Dance is an invaluable resource if you’re interested in the history of jazz dances (including lindy hop), and it includes extensive interviews, biographies and descriptions of dances. There’s even a section of labanotation in the back, where each dance is carefully described in detail.

But even more importantly, Marshall Stearns features in some of the most useful archival film footage of jazz dance that we have available to us today.

You can see him calling the steps for Al Minns and Leon James in this television program:

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Marshall Stearns worked with Al and Leon and other African and African American dancers and musicians, recording their stories, dance steps and knowledge of dance and music.

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(Poor John Lee Hooker, workin’ for the man.)

Marshall and his wife Jean, who was also his research partner and co-author, spent hours and hours and days and days working with musicians and dancers, compiling the book Jazz Dance, but also expanding their collection of music, film and documents, which eventually became the Institute of Jazz Studies Archive. They describe this process in Jazz Dance.

Then Marshall (who was a university lecturer and researcher) and Jean set about sharing this knowledge with other people.

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They published books and papers, appeared on television, and were involved in projects like The Music Inn, where (mostly white, mostly rich) people could come to learn about jazz music and dance.
The Stearns write in Jazz Dance:

In the early 1950’s, during the first years of a summer resort in the Berkshire Mountains called Music Inn, we tried an experiment. Our aim was to entertain – quite informally – a handful of guests in the lounge after dinner, but our host Philip Barber was carried away with his theory of instantaneous talent combustion. “Throw gifted performers together,” he said, “get one of them going, and watch them all discover talents which they didn’t know they had.” With various jazzmen of supposedly separate eras, the idea had worked well.
That evening we had dancers from three different countries: Asadata Dafora from the Sierra Leone, West Africa; Geoffrey Holder from Trinidad, West Indies; and Al Minns and Leon James from the Savoy Ballroom, New York City. All of them were alert to their own traditions and articulate, eager to demonstrate their own styles.
So we began with the Minns-James repertory of twenty or so Afro-American dances, from “Cakewalk to Cool,” asking Dafora and Holder to comment freely. The results were astonishing. One dancer hardly began a step before another exclaimed with delight, jumped to his feet, and executed a related version of his own. The audience found itself sharing the surprise and pleasure of the dancers as they hit upon similarities in their respective traditions. We were soon participating in the shock of recognizing what appeared to be be one great tradition (Jazz Dance p12).

The Institute of Jazz Studies holds a collection of recordings of oral histories as well as countless books, papers, music scores and ephemera. You can access some of this online. A highlight is this great biography of Mary Lou Williams, composer, arranger and pianist in Andy Kirk’s band, whose music we often use in class. And you can listen to Nellie Lutcher talking about playing music and traveling on the road in the 1930s and 40s.

Al and Leon continued to dance, perform and discuss jazz dance with Stearns for years after the heyday of the Savoy. Al Minns later worked with the first of the lindy hop revivalists in the 1980s, including Lennart Westerlund.

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My favourite part is just after that first quote:

Dafora finally observed with some asperity that although the Fish Tail came from Africa, dancing in the European fashion with one arm around your partner’s waist was considered obscene. (“The African dance,” writes President Senghor of Senegal, “disdains bodily contact.”)

Solo because yolo, right?

While the Stearns rocked the kasbah, I can’t help but wonder how those nights at the Music Inn might have gone if there’d been at least one woman dancing, to talk about African women’s dances, and to demonstrate the badassery that is a woman dancing…

[edit: I’ve just come across this story about jazz education which mentions the Lenox School, which seems an extension of the Music Inn]

Little Big Weekend 3

This is where my attention is right now:

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The (3rd) Little Big Weekend, featuring Lennart Westerlund and Georgia Brooks, 11-12 May 2013, here in Sydney.

The website: www.littlebigweekend.com/ is now active;

There’s a twitter account to follow: @littlebigwkend;

And a facebook event.

I run two Little Big Weekends per year, and I think they’re great. They’re basically smaller workshop-focussed weekends, tailored specifically to my local dance scene. But we do attract interstaters as well, which is nice.

There’s only one day of general admission workshops, and the workshops start at midday. There’s only one day of classes, because local peeps don’t want to spend their entire weekend at workshops – they’re usually busy people with full time jobs who have other things they need to do on the weekend. But the workshop content is quite unique (we don’t just do random ‘intro to charleston’ or ‘lindy hop blahblah’ – we do 1920s eccentric solo dance, or ‘blues dancing that’s dynamic and interesting’). I hunt down teachers who have mad teaching skills and are also great dancers and (most importantly) are approachable, friendly, nice people. Because life is too short to deal with pain in the arse, drama queen teachers. I’m also very interested in mixed-level classes, especially solo dance classes, because they’re good for the local community.

There’s only one big dance and one major late night party, because local dancers are busy and can’t really trash themselves hardcore all that regularly. The major dance is in a big town hall, and will feature a really great band. The late night party is the best late night party. The band is truly fabulous, there’s free cake (and not just random cake – really good, high quality, fancy cake), there’re usually two rooms of music and a chill out room, and it’s a community-run, non-profit event. This time the weekend happens to fall on the same weekend as a fortnightly DJed dance, so that’s on the Friday as well. And this time, because we are hosting Lennart Westerlund, I’ve added a film-talk-Q&A event to the program. That’s on the Sunday, and it’ll be a bit more chillaxed. The venue does good food and drink, there’s non-dancing stuff to do there (lawn bowls, etc), and it’s a friendly, community-run venue (NOT a Clubs Australia venue). The film/Q&A will be followed by DJed social dancing.

And, finally, there’s another teachers’ workshop on the Sunday. This is an afternoon session with limited numbers, restricted to people who are currently teaching regularly. These workshops have two parts: a general skills tidy-up for teachers (looking specifically at dance skills for teachers); and a teaching-skills and practical tips session. Because Lennart tells me he teaches ‘old school Harlem style’, I want him to talk about this in that session, and to explain how this is different to other types of teaching. And I want him to explain how he fits history into his classes, in a practical way.
I find these teachers’ workshops really interesting and stimulating. The small class size is just fantastic, and working and talking with other teachers is so inspiring and stimulating. These aren’t ‘be a better teacher’ sessions, so much as ‘come and think about and work on teaching practices with us’ sessions. The sessions emphasise participants’ asking questions and bringing challenges or things to work on, where they can workshop them with other teachers and draw on the experience of the visiting teacher. And then the best bit is that we then get to go to the Film/Q&A gig and talk about these ideas.

Having run larger events which explicitly target inter-staters – a national and international audience – running locally-focussed gigs is really nice. I don’t need to do aggressive interstate promotions, hassling people in other cities and competing with other high profile events. I can aim for a smaller group of people, which makes for much better learning experiences (good student:teacher ratios = good learning), and I can canvass local people to find out what they want to learn, and then plan the weekend to suit their interests. Financially speaking, the risk is much lower, but the profit percentage stays the same, which is nice. Running two per year means there are two opportunities to earn profit, but there’s less risk of a massive loss. Because I’m not trying to make a weekend event feel like good value for money for a traveler, I don’t have to run my local volunteers ragged putting on three million events in one weekend. I can just run a couple of good parties. And it also means that I can look at really unusual or interesting class content. I don’t have to try to appeal to a huge, general audience. I can be very specific.

The littler program means that I can run two of these per year. It’s not as draining a a mega event, where you run on too little sleep and too much work for too long. Running two per year means that promotion works in a slightly different way as well. The event stays closer to the front of punters’ minds, and if they miss one, they know the next one is just six (or so) months away, so it’s not a huge drama to plan for that.

So, all up, it’s a good thing. And I enjoy working on these events quite a lot. They don’t leave me with that burnt-out, exhausted and creatively wrung-dry feeling that a huge event does. And because I’m deliberately thinking small, there’s not the pressure to be a huge success. Having said that, because I have had experience with larger events, I can draw on that to make these smaller ones very high quality. They’re not dodgy small and amateurish events. The local managers and volunteers are highly skilled people – they are capable, professional and a joy to work with. And Sydney is a big, cosmopolitan city, so we have very good resources to draw on – good venues, great bands, lots of options for sound and lighting engineers, great restaurants and bars. As a fairly diverse, long-running lindy hop community (the oldest in the country) with lots of dancers who travel overseas, we also have a fairly discerning audience-base, so we need to run events that are fairly decent. So you’re not getting rubbishy DJs in crappy dance studios. You’re getting fucking hot bands in great dance studios :D

…and that’s partly why I haven’t been writing here much lately. The part of my brain that does critical thinking about dance is otherwise engaged.

FYI If you’re interested in the Little Big Weekend, we are running a fourth event in December this year. I have no idea who’ll be teaching, but we have a very good band lined up to do a series of gigs, so the parties will be good :D
It’s 7th-8th December, the weekend after MLX, which is 28 Nov-1 Dec. So if you’re thinking of a trip to Australia, it’s cool to combine the two events. MLX is the biggest event in the country, and Melbourne is a great tourist city. Then the LBW the weekend after is in Sydney, which is the biggest city in the country. Last December we had quite a few internationals travel up from MLX to the LBW.

Using history in dance classes

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.

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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.

I could use Youtube to search for some footage from the events described in those pieces, and then I could use google to find a ‘legit’ source for this film (in this case the NFSA).*

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.

*NB I used lindy penguin‘s blog post for these search results.

**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).

Ladies first: sometimes we are triumphantly cycling to victory in our sports bras

I’ve had a couple of emails about what was a fairly glib throwaway line about Nathan Bugh’s piece ‘Ladies First’ in my last blog post Gendering Dance Talk. This kind of surprised me, because I didn’t really think a lot about Bugh’s article in the first place, and I don’t have any sort of opinion about his teaching, dancing, writing or person. Though I know he’s quite popular with students, I’ve never done a class with him, I’ve never met him or seen him in real life, and I think I’ve watched maybe two or three clips of him dancing.

That’s all good.

I have noticed that if I’m at all not 100% about a particular high profile teacher or dancer, I get a bunch of comments and emails where people passionately defend that dancer and give me a good telling off for being mean. Or they explain in expansive detail how I am wrong.

I have to say, my first (unspoken) response in this instance was ‘Yeah, whatever. My care factor is really kinda low.’ But then I reminded myself: this guy is probably up there in the ‘celebrity lindy hopper’ category. So a lot of people have a great deal of emotional investment in him and his ideas as ideas. And as anyone who’s ever made a joke about Beiber knows, fans got furious opinions.

So here is the point of this particular post: it’s ok for people to disagree with someone you admire. Rereading Bugh’s piece, my thoughts are a bit like this:
That’s a lot of blog post to basically say “Stop talking about moves, start talking about leading and following.” And then I remind myself about my own blog post lengths.

I do still think the implication in that piece is that attention to the following is important because it improves leading. I think that reading, though, is really just a result of the structure of the piece over all. I guess he could be saying ‘to improve the connection/partnership and learning experience, we have to focus on both parts of the partnership – leading and following’. But he’s not. He’s saying that and that the followers are responsible for the leaders’ learning in class. Here, this is where he says that explicitly:

However, when it comes to learning and teaching lead/follow skills, the follower’s technique is a much higher priority than the leader’s. Her dancing ability, her awareness, strength, balance, use of the floor, etc. are the elements from which spring her following ability AND the leader’s leading ability. She is the beginning of the logic in the dance. In class, the followers empower the leaders to learn. Leaders judge their progress according to the results that their partners embody. Followers are the focus of the lead/follow process, and they have to follow before the leaders can lead.

My problems with this approach?
Making women responsible for men’s learning is so boringly old fashionedly sexist, I can’t even begin to engage with it. And I think that Bugh’s consistent use of gendered pronouns reveals the gender bias at work in his thinking. Language is important: the words we choose reflect and affect the way we think. I believe that leaders are responsible for their own learning. Both partners are responsible for the partnership, and the teachers are responsible for facilitating this learning. Women /= mothers for all men, responsible for their problems and mistakes. Boooooring.

Having said that, I think this idea is at the heart of a dilemma a lot of follows face, whether they’re brand new dancers or quite experienced. And it’s a discussion we seem to have quite regularly in lindy hop (I wrote about it almost two years ago to the day in lindy hop followers bring themSELVES to the dance; lindy hop leaders value this.) The dilemma the follow faces tends to be do you follow exactly what is led, so the lead gets clear feedback on what’s happening, and on the consequences of their actions (so that they can actually learn and improve)? I think, in class, the answer is yes. But what about on the social dance floor?

This is where we tend to be split. Yes, on one hand we should always follow as well as we can, to give that clear feedback to the leads. And if you do follow like this, you find that most leads improve during the dance, as they assimilate and act on the feedback. But some leads definitely do not: the arrogant lead who assumes that if the dance isn’t working with this follow, but is with all others, it’s because this follow is wrong. Even if this particular follow is the only one who’s accurately reflecting what the leader is leading. But when we’re on the social floor, we’re both invested in making this dance a success, so we ‘help’ the lead by making moves work, even if that’s not exactly what the lead had intended.

This, of course, is the rub. If we’re ‘helping’, are we still following, and is the lead actually leading? In my experience, the better a follow, the more likely they are to not help. They do me the compliment of assuming that I know what I’m doing, and they do exactly what I ask. So I suddenly realise that I lift my left arm up into the air on &8 of a swingout, because I see the follow respond to that ‘lead’. And I stop doing that.

This is where I think we see social and cultural conventions inflect our dancing. Social dancing is social dancing, so do have that unwritten social contract with our partner: make this a good dance. And we do what we can to make that work. So that might mean a follow helping. Even if their definition is to add in some fun rhythms when the lead isn’t actually leading anything, and you’d both be standing there stock still otherwise. Our personalities, the social norms of our scene, even gendered relations will shape how we do this social part of the leading and following. Because technique is only one part of a dance.

Bugh states that point, quite clearly at the end of his piece:

Lead/Follow technique is just one, narrow hallway in the mansion of Lindy Hop

Which is where I’d like to leave this post. But I have one more final point to make. It is possible to hear or read someone’s point and to disagree with it, respectfully. It’s ok that someone disagrees with you. Or with someone you admire. In fact, it’s a good thing to have dissent in a discourse.

I can read that piece of Bugh’s and say ‘Yeah, I’m ok with some parts, I’m not ok with others, and I don’t think I agree with the overall premise of the piece.’ That doesn’t make Bugh wrong and me right, or me wrong and Bugh right. Nor does it mean that the discussion ends there. I can go away and think about these ideas, work on them with my own dancing and teaching, talk and write about them with other people. I can change my mind. I can come to value that first part I agreed with even more. Or I could come to disagree completely.

It is not only ok for people to disagree, it is vitally important that we are not all in agreement all the time. We need diversity of opinion, to have conflicting and competing opinions if we are to remain creatively and culturally viable as a community. Without it, we’d still be doing charleston and we’d never have broken away. Both our feet would be on the floor, all the time.
Of course (to make this allegory clear), I see dance as a model for discourse. As discourse. Just as much as a conversation or written exchange of ideas. In dance, we hash out ideas, we share points, we disagree, we battle, we resolve tensions and conflicts.

[NB this point is important to the things I talk about later. I want to argue that it’s really really important for dance classes to prioritise the idea of follows contributing actively to the dance, and by not ‘just following’. I think that encouraging women to be passive contributes to rape culture. I write about this a lot, but most explicitly in A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities and Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes. I have also pointed out before, in I vant to be alone how encouraging women to speak up and be active makes for good lindy hop and good lindy hop scenes.[/]

I think the problem for a lot of lindy hoppers is that while we have a degree of coherency on the dance floor (we tend to agree that a ‘good dance’ is a good goal for all of us, and that violence is not), we don’t have that cultural coherency off the dance floor. We are from so many different countries and cultures, we find it difficult to reach a true understanding, when it comes to language. Though we tend to carry that idea with us from lindy hop, that a ‘good dance’ is important.

Frankie’s influence is clear here: for the next three minutes you’re in love; this is such a happy dance; politicians should see how lindy hop makes people happy. I think his influence on our international community cannot be overstated; his example is central to this ideas of accord being central to a ‘good dance’.

[Here is where I’d like to make a very contentious point about social power and why we avoid conflict. I would not be the first person to point out that people without power avoid conflict with people with power. There are risks involved in confrontation (I write about this in regards to music and dance in what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc). Frankie himself writes in his autobiography (I think it is – I’d need to check the reference) about an experience with segregation, where he chooses to be quiet and to avoid conflict when faced with overt racism. Norma Miller, however, rarely advocates keeping quiet. One of the key parts of patriarchy is that it requires people without power to keep quiet and accept subjugation. We must become complicit in this disempowerment. It also requires people with power to keep quiet too. This ideology makes it essential that we all accept that the risk of speaking up outweighs the risk of keeping quiet.]

But, in the final analysis, we are not always dancing. Sometimes we are talking and arguing and disagreeing. This doesn’t make us any less a community. It makes us a more vibrant, healthy community. I don’t even want to argue that we should only disagree in particular ways. I’m not of the opinion that every disagreement should be civil and polite. I think that sometimes we need to be angry and to shout and to be upset and impolite, particularly as women, who are told by everything in our societies that we should be polite and not initiate conflict or disagreement.

So (and this is my final point), it’s ok to disagree, and it’s ok to argue. Some of the most fantastic, most creative and intelligent work in all sorts of cultures has come from disagreement. Academic journals used to publish articles and responding articles where two authors might hash out an idea through disagreement. Public, mannered disagreement that ultimately led to leaps forward in thinking in the field. The air steps were invented as an attempt to ‘win an argument’ in a dance contest. That argument was of course ‘which ballroom has the best dancers.’ Cutting contests see two (or more) musicians get up and battle it out for supremacy. And a cutting contest is really only a more enthusiastic version of a jam.

I like to think of this online disagreement and argument and discussion as trading twelves. Just like jazz musicians. Or Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison.

The second ending to this post
I’m sorry this is such a jumbly long post. I had intended to finish here. But then I didn’t.

You might have realised that this post is working in concert with, or as part of a broader discussion going on in the lindy hop interkittens. Let me trace the geography for you:

  • Lindy Shopper wrote Assaulted by Breasts, which sparked a discussion.
  • Word flew around the world, as dancers all over the place interested in gender and dance emailed and private messaged each other, and then got active and wrote down their ideas. This tells us that Lindy Shopper’s blog is influential, and that her opinions are listened to. It also tells us that there’s an exciting network of creative women around the world, and that they are listening to each other, even if they don’t always agree.
  • People’s first responses were as comments on Lindy Shopper’s blog post. They were quite emotional responses. And then I think people realised that it wasn’t appropriate to logjam LS’s comments, so they started writing longer responses. To me, this tells me that LS had touched on something important, and had stimulated people’s minds and feelings.
  • Parrot Cat wrote a post in response My breasts don’t assault you just by sitting here actually.
  • There was, throughout this, a series of FB posts and messages, emails, twitter conversations and general talk that happened in private spaces, so I don’t want to list them here. But I think it’s important to note that almost all the people involved in this discussion were also having private conversations. Which, in my experience, were very kind and civil.
  • Jerry posted this FB status update for Wandering and Pondering and that’s where things got a bit full on. W&P really serves as an aggregator for lindy hop related clips, gossip and bits and pieces. I have found that when W&P links up my blog I get a sudden rush of traffic, and plenty of people, primed by the directing site, pour in to read that one post and get all up in my grill (I wrote about this process a little while ago).
    This is what was posted on W&P:

    Actually, I have been assaulted by breasts. I once danced with an overly endowed woman who insisted on not turning until the last possible moment whenever I lead her in for a swingout. This resulted in not just ABG, but one time she full on used my arm as a shelf for her rack. And they were heavy too. I had forgotten about that until I read this post. Thanks.
    http://clausti.blogspot.com/2013/02/my-breasts-dont-assault-you-by-just.html

    Yeah, so Jerry doesn’t win any prizes for language choice here. And his framing of this link set LS up for a wave of hassle. And LS’s blog is well-trafficked – she’s used to serious internet attention.

  • In poured the comments on LS’s blog. Some of them were far too harsh.
  • LS posted On Having a reasonable discussion in the lindy hop community, where she shifts the focus from bodies and breasts to the way these issues are discussed.
    In my circle, this post wasn’t received terribly well. It does read a bit like a dismissal of disagreement of her arguments and points as ‘But you just didn’t understand what I was saying.’ I don’t want to go into that. I think the important part is that many people reading realised that this was LS saying “Hang on. I’m upset. I want this to stop.” And whether her original points were wrong or right, that was the important part.
    I think you need to know that in this post LS talks about how her thinking was coloured by her own experiences with assault. She writes

    I had immediate anxiety about how the meaning of my post could be misconstrued.

    This is a perfectly natural response. In our fucked up culture. You know that quote from Margarate Atwood, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” ? That’s how it feels. Our culture tells us that we need to keep quiet, to not speak out, because we’d be provoking assault. We’d get what we deserve. So when we do speak out online, part of us is often niggling over that fear. We don’t mind being laughed at. We’re frightened of being physically attacked. And we immediately blame ourselves for attracting attention, and then we try to protect ourselves.

    This is why I think that LS’s post is important. It tells us that she has deeply conflicted feelings about these issues. And I think that’s also why so many of us were angry when we read this. All the stuff that feeds into rape culture means that these issues are deeply complex. And upsetting. Which is why we use all-caps when we’re responding. Why we get angry. Why we feel afraid. The part that astounds me is that women can even manage to step up and continue to speak after this. The one thing I hope is that LS doesn’t let this experience shut her up. And I hope she realises that those women responding to her post with a bad case of the shitty pants were listening to her, and that they have her back and that she is safe with this crowd. But that there’s going to be some shouting too. And that that can be ok.

  • Parrot Cat wrote a post in response to this, On having an adult discussion in the lindy hop community- which I think we are. I think Parrot Cat’s point is quite clear in the title of that post: this is what an adult discussion sounds like.
    Sometimes we get angry and upset and use all caps. Sometimes we rage out. And then sometimes we calm down and continue to take you seriously and to respect you as a person but we also disagree with your argument completely and utterly. I disagree almost completely with everything LS said in her original post, and in much of her second post. But that doesn’t mean that I stop respecting her, or stop listening to her. But my rage has burnt out. Now I want to talk more about this, in a less all-caps way.
  • Jerry posted another update on W&P. It looked like this:

    Laura clarifies some things from her post about breasts. This issue got pretty big yesterday. Often times people like to grab onto these sort of things when they perk up.Whether you lean towards one side or the other, or just want to bounce them around, I think both deserve as much support as you can give them.

    As you can tell, I have nothing substantial to contribute to this conversation. Just isn’t my cup of . . . ok, I’m done.

    http://lindyshopper.com/2013/02/05/on-having-a-reasonable-discussion-in-the-lindy-hop-community/

    This post actually made me quite angry. He belittles the discussion, he belittles the high emotions of the people involved, he belittles LS’s distress. AND he makes a series of childish jokes which aren’t appropriate in this setting. They’re also largely out of character for W&P, which doesn’t usually make these sorts of childish sexy jokes. So I wondered if he was feeling uncomfortable with the topic, or if he just thought everyone was being silly. Sure, you mightn’t value the points at play, but there are other ways of making light of the discussion.
    One of the consequences of this post was another wave of traffic to the posts involved. And that wave was made up of people primed by Jerry’s glib dismissal of the issues at hand. I’m just glad I wasn’t moderating the comments on those blogs.

  • I think about Why Do Women Need To Be ‘Good Sports’?, which a clever friend hooked me up with earlier this year. I think about the way those W&P posts trivialised these women’s concerns. I get a bit angry.
  • I want to wade in. I have a bunch of notes, and I’m keeping track of my thinking. But I’m just too bloody busy. My classes started back this week, and I have a million commitments (which I itemise here). Look, just pretend I wrote a post with a lot of swears in it, ok?
  • There’s a post on Bug’s Question of the Day where people get all up in their emotions. More waves of traffic.
  • vernacular jazz dance (aka fuckyeahswingdance) responds
  • cue tumblr
  • I write that post Gendering Dance Talk where I get boring with talk about language in dance classes, because I’d just taught my first dance class of the year. But I’m still thinking about all this.
    Right now, writing about this stuff, part of me wonders if I’ve managed to fuck up my professional dance life. I organise big dance weekends, hiring international teachers and generally getting up in people’s grills in a public way. What are the consequences of my mentioning Nathan Bugh by name? Will I have screwed potential contacts? What if I wanted to hire Nathan for a gig? Or one of his friends? Would they refuse? Will I be blackballed? Or less dramatically, will they avoid working with me because they think I’m ‘too loud’ (I’ve spoken too much), ‘too aggressive’ (I’ve disagreed)?
    As LS wrote, “I had immediate anxiety about how the meaning of my post could be misconstrued.” The temptation is to apologise, and to explain and explain and explain. Which is what women do to avoid conflict. But I’m not going to. I will not apologise for having an opinion, but I will apologise for frightening or upsetting someone. So, Lindy Shopper, I’m sorry I went all caps on you in that comment on your blog post, and I’m sorry if/for contributing to your distress.
  • So now, let’s look at something nice that happened. There’ve been a slew of blog posts and tumblr posts about this. Tumblr: come for the Teen Wolf slash prn fanfic, stay for the opportunity to express your ideas and form complex international support networks.
    Aries wrote something interesting which lends a really nice empathetic, emotionally laden tone to the discussion. I think that this is an important post because Aries talks about the issues that are at the heart of this. The way we internalise body shaming and slut shaming, and the way these feelings battle with our intellectual, feminist thoughts, leaving us feeling conflicted and trying not to shout at the people we disagree with. I think Aries’ post allowed us to feel the feelings, and to be ok with the fact that we can’t actually be calm and rational and adult all the time. Sometimes we’re upset, or worried, or frightened. And then, best of all, sometimes we are triumphantly cycling to victory in our sports bras.

Gendering dance talk

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.

References
Ortner, Sherry (1974) Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Anthropological Theory, John McGee and Richard Worms, eds. California: Mayfield Publishing Press. Pp. 402-413.

Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Tannen, Deborah, ed. Gender and Conversational Interaction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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.