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.

Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes

If you’ve ever done a lindy hop class ever, chances are you’ve come across a Problem Guy. Problem Guys are just that – problems. They interrupt the teachers. They talk while the teachers are talking. They instruct the follows in class (usually incorrectly) and they just. won’t. shut. up. They often move themselves up class levels before they’re ready. They quite often pull out lifts and other inappropriate shit on the social floor with follows who are too shy to tell them to fuck off.
They also tend to be a bit socially awkward, but not in a charming way, so men find them a bit difficult to hang about with as well. They may touch women more than they’d like (even if it’s not sexualised touch), and they’re usually not the best dancers. Sometimes they are nice people, but just totally socially clueless ones. I’d argue that it’s not possible to be entirely socially clueless and nice. Social skills are part of what make people ‘nice’, or make us feel that they’re nice. Which is why the Problem Guy is often invisible to many men – those men just aren’t on the receiving end of a lot of the Problem Guy behaviour.

There are also Problem Girls, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about how masculinity works in this context. We spend a lot of time policing women’s bodies and behaviour, even in feminist discourse, so I want to talk about men and masculinity. I want to talk about masculinities in dance more in the future (I do want to get back to that point about ‘styling it like a man‘ eventually as well). So this is a post about Problem Guys.

So how do you deal with them? Wait, let me rephrase that. How do I deal with them? Before I ramble on, let me say: these are strategies I use, and they may not work for you, particularly if you’re not in Australia. Because intra-scene politics, gender politics and dance cultures are quite unique. But, well, fuck, maybe they will work for you – try them! And if you’ve got other strategies – please do let me know, as I’m determined to deal with this stuff!
Please note: I do not speak for my teaching partner. This is my understanding of what we do, and I know she has lots of different ideas. So this is me talking about my thinking, and I am NOT speaking for anyone else.

We’ve had a few Problem Guys this year, and we’ve dealt with them in different ways. At first, when we were just setting up our class venue and getting shit under control, we weren’t so confident in dealing with them. But as we got it together, we got it together. I think that as two women teaching together, we found our Problem Guy challenges were not the same as those faced by most male-female teaching couples. We had to be ten times more confident, and ten times more assertive. We had to deal with poor behaviour from Problem Guys much more aggressively, and we had to do lots more work in-class to prevent Problem Guys popping up.
But shit, we’re fucking guns, we can totally pwn that shit. And so can YOU.*

What do Problem Guys do, and what are the effects of this behaviour? Or, why should you give a shit about Problem Guys?

Problem Guys:

  • Question follows and ‘instruct them’ in the class: this makes follows anxious and self-doubting. That means these women won’t come back to class (who would?), or they stay and become more anxious and self-doubting, which is fucked up, and also fucks up their dancing;
  • Problem Guy behaviour in class sets the stage for later stuff on the social dance floor or in comps where the lead can get away with mistreating the follow (rough leading, aerials without consent, etc).
  • Problem Guy behaviour towards women disempowers women dancers right from the get-go (by making them question their own dancing). This makes them quiet timid dancers, and it also means they don’t feel ok with properly expressing themselves. And this is lindy hop – that’s not how we roll – we do all the emotions!
  • Problem Guys distract women from the teachers, and this undoes the teachers’ authority, and this in turn means the class flow is disrupted. This makes for poorer learning, but it can also make for clunky, boring classes or classes with fucked up social dynamics.
  • Problem Guys often make loud, inappropriate jokes that are often a bit sexy, while the teacher is talking. These jokes are usually at the expense of the female teacher (so they may make some comment about how the lead can’t put their hand there because omgsexy, or they may joke about how the lead has to be assertive because women don’t like being told what to do.) Conversely, they may make self-depreciating jokes about how men can’t multi-task and need a woman to do that for them. Whatever it is they’re joking about, those jokes demand you respond and interact with them, and this makes them the centre of attention and distracts everyone.
  • Problem Guys clearly think they are as important or know as much as the teachers – they don’t listen to the teachers, they talk over the teachers, they instruct the students as teachers do.
  • Finally, Problem Guys take up far more than their fair share of time in class. This means poorer learning outcomes for everyone else, and a fucked up social dynamic, where everything revolves around one person, rather than around everyone else. It discourages other people from speaking up in class (because they are often interrupted or pre-empted), and it sets a bad example for other Problem Guys. Problem Guys breed more Problem Guys.

So what does all this mean? There are clear financial challenges posed by Problem Guys: they scare off students and that loses you money. There are pedagogic problems: they interrupt the teaching and learning. And there are occasionally more serious issues, where Problem Guys bully teachers and other students in a physical sense, and make them feel afraid.

So how does all this work culturally, or in terms of interpersonal politics?

Firstly, let’s note that this behaviour by Problem Guy is really quite acceptable by mainstream Australian social standards. We see this sort of behaviour in talk-back radio, on the Footy Show and in television drama. I think this is often very white, straight Australian man phenomena: they are playing out hegemonic masculinity, and our culture encourages that sort of behaviour from men. There is also a congruent dominant femininity that’s required to make this sort of masculinity work: women must be compliant, passive, sexual objects, non-confrontational ears for these men’s words. And as most of us know, it’s quite easy to make your lindy hop reflect those roles. If you’re into terrible lindy hop.

Secondly, if you’re a guy who’s not into being a problem, or a sister who doesn’t want to be an object, our culture makes it really difficult for you to get along in mainstream spaces. If you’re a guy who loves to dance with huge, flamboyant abandon, you’re not going to get a terribly positive reception in some jock straight guy bar. If you like listening to women and enjoy their company without trying to screw them, or their wearing sexytime dresses, you’re not going to feel hugely ok in a mainstream singles scene. You’re going to need to seek out alternative spaces. Lindy hop scenes can be those spaces. But those spaces need to be nurtured.

When Problem Guys come across women performing the non-traditional femininity or men performing the non-hegemonic masculinity, they tend to want to reassert the dominance of conventional gender relations. In other words, they don’t like this non-traditional stuff, so they try to fix it. Or they take advantage of what they perceive (even on an unconscious level) as a power vacuum, because they don’t recognise the other, more complex power dynamics at work in spaces with multiple types of gender going on.

So, the Problem Guy functions in three ways:

  • They disempower the women students in the class;
  • They deconstruct the power of the teachers (especially the women teachers);
  • They re-construct their own power and status in class.

This is all bad because it means we end up with frightened women dancers who have no confidence, who apologise all the time, and don’t want to express themselves or take creative risks with their dancing because #shame.
This is all bad because we end up with disorganised, malfunctioning classes where learning is interrupted or stalls completely (and students get shitty).
This is all bad because we see unpleasant people dominate what could be a very pleasant space.
All this means students leave, money stops coming in, and teachers get really frustrated and unhappy. Bad news.

Why do Problem Guys do all these things?

  • These types of men find it difficult to be students and accept the (perceived) lower status of students in a class (this is often a problem in a class that emphasises hierarchies instead of valuing students as peers);
  • They compensate by finding other ways to shore up their own status and power (to make themselves feel good): by instructing other students; by assuming they’re right all the time; by not interrogating their own assumptions about their dancing; by constantly interrupting the teachers with jokes or comments;
  • They see knowledge as a list of possessions to acquire, rather than as an ongoing, changing process;
  • They’re not challenged by teachers in class (who don’t want to cause a scene, who don’t know it’s happening, who don’t like conflict), so they’re effectively getting positive reinforcement for their behaviour.

Things we know about Problem Guys:

  • These men are often not such great dancers;
  • They don’t improve (they tend to stagnate), because they don’t accept instruction, they refuse to accept that they’re not great (they often say things like “this is just my style” or “I don’t like X’s style, I like Y’s style which I learnt years ago”, or “I don’t care about that stuff – I just want to have fun”). These men often perceive themselves as among ‘the best’ in a scene, or not having anything left to learn, or their teachers as not having anything to teach them. Because they are often quite ignorant of broader cultural and social forces, and of the nuances of partnering technique, they feel that because they’ve done all the classes or been dancing for X number of years they’re ‘finished’ with learning;
  • They see teaching, learning and dancing as hierarchal, and this hierarchy as static (ie it’s not changing). This means that they tend to assume once you’re a ‘good dancer’ you stay a good dancer, or that men are better leads than women or that there are certain ‘right’ ways of doing things;
  • They aren’t constructively self-reflexive (they can’t and don’t reflect on their own dancing in a constructive way, but they are often quite hard on themselves and inside have quite low self esteem, despite their blustering);
  • They and their behaviour is often challenged by other students in class and on the dance floor, but then these challengers avoid them (or are avoided), and the Problem Guy just dismisses these challenges as ‘bitchiness’ or ‘too serious’ or ‘stupid’;
  • These men then target younger/more vulnerable women to dance with/instruct on the social floor/bully. Because these women won’t challenge them on their behaviour and are more likely to let Problem Guys do as they want. These women often just leave dancing altogether rather than confront these guys, or they tolerate it, because they have their own issues going on.

These issues are important because they establish power dynamics that persist into a dancer’s dancing career.
These conditions enable sexual harassment (where women are encouraged to think it’s ok for men to comment on their physical person and what they do with it); they isolate women dancers and prevent them from seeking support from other women (because they’re only dancing with men).

There’s this expression: ‘threatened people respond with fight or flight, with aggression or avoidance’. Teachers and other students do the same with Problem Guys: they confront or they avoid. Most of us avoid, because confrontation isn’t something Australians do a lot of, because women tend to deal with anti-social behaviour obliquely rather than directly, and because we’re there to dance, not work. I suggest that we needn’t think of this as fight or flight. As a dear and very clever friend of mine said when I was worrying about talking to a male dancer about a Serious Dance Issue: it’s not a confrontation yet. It’s just a conversation.

What do Problem Guys need? My first response is ‘a kick up the pants and told to fuck off’. Because I am NOT here to correct this shit. Part of feminism, for me, is about not taking responsibility for men’s behaviour. I won’t accept that a man sexually harassing me is my fault because I wore a low cut blouse, and I certainly won’t accept that a Problem Guy is a problem in my scene because I wasn’t a good enough teacher.**

[related rant]
I’d also add that we need to STOP promoting our dance as ‘a return to simpler times where men were men and women were women’, because that shit attracts Problem Guys to classes in the first place. And we need to work really hard to prevent journalists writing that shit about lindy hop when they do those regular ‘what is swing?!’ human interest pieces in the local press. So we need to think carefully about how we brand lindy hop when we’re doing our promotional activities.
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BUT
As a community, we need to deal with this rubbish internally, to make our scenes safer, happier places. Or even just to improve the standard of dancing in our scene, or make our classes more financially sustainable. I’ve also found that practicing these skills in a dance context, where I learn how to deal with Problem Guys in a familiar environment, is excellent practice for the rest of my life. The more experience I have dealing with this shit here, the more confident I become. These are just very useful life skills. So, you see, lindy hop and jazz dance can fight the patriarchy off the dance floor as well!

What do Problem Guys need?

  • They need assertive teaching from teachers (but this sucks as this means they get more than their fare share of attention from teachers);
  • They need to be challenged by teachers, but in a non-confrontational way;
  • They need to stop teaching others and start challenging their own dancing (which they are unlikely to do because it is scary and threatening) so they can rethink their role in our scene.

What do we actually do?
First, and most unsubtle option: confront them. Confronting students in class can be unsettling and difficult for everyone involved – teachers, Problem Guys and students. So you need to have a clear, well-thought out strategy. Both teachers need to be on the same page and supporting each other. And there needs to be a minimum of conflict. Everyone involved needs to save face, the rest of the students need to not feel embarrassed, and everyone needs to feel safe.

  • Make a script for the conversation (remember, it’s not a confrontation yet – it’s a conversation). Both teachers talk about it and know what will happen.
  • Be very clear in your own mind, and with your teaching partner, about what you want. Do you want the Problem Guy to go away and never come back? It’s ok to want this – some guys who come to dance classes are creepy, unpleasant pervs and bullies. Get rid of them. You’re not the right person to ‘change’ them, and having them in your class will scare away students. Do you want them to stop talking while you’re talking? To stop instructing the follows? Make a list, and then make these into clear, concrete requests. So rather than saying “Stop hassling the follows” say “Stop telling the follows what to do.” Keep it brief. One or three points is enough.
  • Plan out the role for both teachers for the confrontation/conversation. It’s often best to have the male teacher or lead teacher (whoever the Problem Guy will perceive as ‘most important’ – this will almost always be the guy) do the most talking, and for the other teacher to stand right there with them, clearly supporting them.
    We’ve made these sorts of plans for our class, and allocated roles according to our personalities. I’m ok with actually saying these things (though I can get pretty scared, I can do it if I know someone has my back), but my partner is not. So I do the actual speaking and my partner does the ‘moving right along’ part, where we immediately get back into the class content afterwards: I stop the group, tell the Problem Guy to stop doing whatever he’s doing, then my partner starts us off again. It’s a well-oiled process. You might like to both speak, taking turns listing requests. Or you might gradually change things up in your approach, as you develop skills, confidence and inclination. Whatever you do, make a plan first. And practice saying your script out loud. That way you’ll be cooler when you put it into play.
  • Decide where you’re going to do this talking. In front of a class is very powerful and very effective, but it can be a challenge. It’s a public forum that can make some Problem Guys extra aggressive because they’re embarrassed. And many women dealing with this sort of aggression will immediately back off.
    Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s not likely that a Problem Guy will physically attack you in class, but aggression can take other forms. No one wants to have some nutcase shouting at them in front of a class. But then some Problem Guys are far more aggressive and confrontational in private spaces, where they think they can bully and intimidate you.
    So judge your Problem Guy carefully, then choose an appropriate forum. Don’t do it in a dark car park. Maybe do it in a quieter part of the room, in sight of the group, but mostly out of ear shot. Don’t feel that you have to do it on your own to help him save face. Your teaching partner is your wing (wo)man, and you are a team. Present that way. And remember that almost all of your students will support your decision to confront Problem Guy and really appreciate your doing so.
  • Practice delivering the script with your teaching partner.
  • Finally, it’s always better to nip this stuff in the bud, and make it clear to potential Problem Guys that you are the bosses here, long before a real conflict develops. After all, the longer you let Problem Guy shit you and your class off, the more students he drives away. And the more upset you’ll get. So get in there sooner rather than later. You’ll find that thinking about Problem Guy is far more upsetting than the five seconds it’ll take to shut his shit down.

Other strategies:
As two women teaching together, we have found that some men simply don’t respect us or listen even when we address them individually. I’ve had similar experiences teaching in universities, a problem exacerbated by the face that I’ve always looked about ten years younger than I am.
So I have a range of strategies for managing Problem Guys in class: I stop talking and stare at them. I stand very close to them in class. And I even walk over and place my hand on their shoulder if they just. won’t. shut. the. fuck. up. Some guys don’t even respond to that. So, even if you do have a whole host of clever classroom management tools going on, you will find yourself needing to confront Problem Guys at some point. Yeah, I know. That’s sucktown. Why can’t they just GET IT TOGETHER? But you can do this. You can confront Problem Guys calmly, professionally and effectively. You’ve just got to trust yourself, and prepare yourself. Or: check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Other things that we do to counter the lack of respect Problem Guys have for women teachers:

  • We pitch our voices lower. Not so good for our vocal chords, but surprisingly effective.
  • Don’t accept the premise of the question, don’t argue, don’t get caught up in some crazy arse conversation mid-class. If someone’s asking you to explain what you’re doing for the eleventieth time say (kindly) “Sorry, but no, we can’t go over that again.” Don’t be all apologetic about it – just move on. If someone tries to get you into a discussion or argument, don’t buy into the content of their point, just say “We don’t have time for that now – let’s do some charleston!” and move along.
  • If Problem Guys try to physically intimidate you (and I’ve seen this happen lots of times, even to women teaching with men), shut that shit down. If men want to touch you in class (and the ‘jokey teasing’ prodding or touching is part of this) turn and say to their face “That is not ok. Stop that or leave.” This goes for students, too.
    There’s a good chance they’ll respond with “Geez, uptight bitch, much?” or “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m so awful, I always do this, I’m so sorry! Can you forgive me?” Both these responses are about keeping them as the centre of attention, and making you respond to them. And you know what? Who cares what they say! That is not your problem. Just walk your fine self away. Do not apologise, do not try to make them feel better.
    This is when your teaching partner rocks: they just immediately move the class on to something else, preferably something quite physically vigorous. The people around you will be so impressed, and the women around you will immediately develop a massive hero crush. Be mighty, because you ARE.
  • Students, in class: if some guy won’t stop putting his hands on you, even if it seems not-sexy, and you don’t like it, tell them “Stop that”, and make sure the teacher or someone else is standing right next to you. If you can’t make that happen in earshot of someone else (these guys usually make sure no one else is around), you can just say it really loudly, at some other point. Say it in a slightly lower pitched voice, say it calmly, and not too quickly: ” STOP THAT.” Other students or your teachers will hear and be right there for you. You don’t have to wait till they touch you – just say it: “STOP TOUCHING ME.”
    If they’re doing it in a less obvious way (eg their hand on your back gets too low or too far to the side, or they stroke your hand in a creepy way) immediately call the teacher over or ask a question to the whole group: “I’m feeling some weird stuff with the back/hand connection. Can you come and help us fix it, please?” A clued-in teacher will come over, see what you’re doing, and then give the lead feed-back. If the lead keeps doing it, tell him how you do want him to touch you, and that what he’s doing is actually kind of creepy. But say it in a joke way that also sounds serious. Pitching this feedback can be tricky, so practice!
    All this goes for guys dealing with women as well.
  • Don’t let Problem Guys buy you drinks or be continually holding doors open for you as you pass through, or ‘helping’ you with your things. That’s their way of asserting their dominance. Sure, it’s great to be bought a drink by students every now and then, and of course we open doors for each other all the time. But some Problem Guys do this all the time and it’s clearly their way of asserting ‘proper’ gender relations. Don’t let them.
    It’s ok to say “No thank you!” to offers of a drink. And if they just buy you a drink regardless, turn to their face and say “No thank you, I don’t want a drink”. Don’t just ignore it, because then they’ll comment on it forever.
    In fact, you’ll often find these types of Problem Guys will not let your objection or comment rest. They’ll make comment after comment, usually along the lines of “Are you some sort of feminist?” (to which the answer is “yes” and then a turned shoulder). These sorts of guys tend to be cowardly bullies – they’ll try to publicly manage you. But be careful of them in private – don’t let them drive you home or walk you to their car or to the train. Make sure you’re not alone.

    If you’re not sure you can do this (because it feels like a confrontation, and we women are trained to be a bit afraid of confrontation), practice at home. Write a script. And tell your friends that you plan on telling this guy to stop, and tell them what you want them to do. Even if that’s to just stand there next to you, or smile and move the conversation along after you’ve said NO THANK YOU (the wing (wo)man factor again!) After a while you’ll get better at this, and you won’t need a script any more.

    I know quite a lot of women worry that if they do this sort of thing, other men (the ones they want to buy them drinks or talk to them or touch them :D ) will think they’re bitches and back off. That is so UNTRUE. If you don’t make it clear that you don’t like this sort of behaviour from Problem Guys, you’ll attract more Problem Guys. But if you make it clear that you don’t like this, you’ll find that guys who don’t treat women like that will get the ‘oh, she likes respectful guys’ vibe from you. Plus you’ll have cleared the field of Problem Guys, so that the guys you want will feel there’s room for them.
    All of this thinking is kind of bad news, though. It sets you up as an object to be admire by men – a flower attracting bees. And that’s no good. You want to BE a bee!
    If you stop worrying about attracting men, if you feel ok about dealing with Problem Guys, and focus on having fun and enjoying the company of friends (of all sexes), you’ll be feeling so awesome you’ll be able to rock in and dazzle the guy of your dreams with your pwr and he’ll be all ‘omg I would LOVE to be your boyfriend!’ WIN!

Now, if you’re a guy reading this and thinking “Gee, overreact much?” you’ve obviously never spoken to a woman. This is what it’s like to be a woman in our culture every single day. We just get used to dealing with this shit every. single. day. Every day some arsehole is telling us to ‘smile!’ or making a joke about how we need help carrying things or making an excuse to touch us in a public place, or looking us up and down or whatever.
When we become teachers, Problem Guys find having us in positions of authority really threatening, so they try to assert their own power by wearing us down. So this sort of shit actually escalates when we move into more interesting roles. It’s very tiring.****

But we don’t need men to step in and deal with this for us. In fact, that can make it worse, as it reinforces Problem Guys’ and potential Problem Guys’ idea that we aren’t as powerful as men. If you’re a guy in the class seeing Problem Guy being an arse, then you can deal with these guys in other ways. One of our students once saw Problem Guy getting told to stop talking with the stare-face, and responded with a loud “Busted!” and a big laugh. It was very jolly, we all laughed, but it made it clear to Problem Guy that other people were watching and that this shit is not ok.
It’s also totally ok for you (as a guy) to say to Problem Guy on his own or even in class in front of people “Mate, can you stop talking during class? It’s really distracting.” It’s ok for you to calmly and politely tell someone you don’t like how their behaviour is affecting you.

In fact, men telling other men that they don’t accept bullshit behaviour is a key part of making the world more awesome, and of my idea of feminism. Feminism isn’t just a job for women: it’s a job for all of us, because it’s about improving things for all of us. Even Problem Guy benefits from feminism, because it means he can chill the fuck out, stop beating himself up about not being alpha male, and just get on with learning to DANCE.

How else do we indirectly manage Problem Guys, or prevent Problem Guys?

  • Make leads (rather than follows) rotate in class. Or switch it up every other class. Rotating is unsettling, and it makes dancers have to constantly reorient themselves in the physical room. This can make leads more defensive, but it’ll also make follows more confident.
  • Use gender neutral language ALL THE TIME. The more you unsettle assumptions about leading and following and the way dancers interact, the more you discourage dodgy in-class behaviour. This is a tiny, but super-powerful tool.
  • Avoid describing leading and following as “Leads/men make the follow do this,” or right/wrong language that implies there’s only one right way of doing things. For a start, you’re wrong, and for a finish, you’re modeling poor behaviour and furnishing students with fairly crap learning tools.
  • Talk about the class room as a laboratory or place for experimenting, and encourage dancers to think about classes not as a place where you ‘acquire’ knowledge (like collecting stamps), but a place where you develop skills and explore ideas.
  • Don’t describe things as ‘rules’ or set out absolute definitions for ways of doing things. eg never say “We must always hold our arms like this,” say “If we hold our arms like this at this point, we can avoid this and make this possible. What happens if we do X instead?” And then get students to test the theory with some practice.
  • If you have leveled or streamed classes, police that shit. You need a way to tell students they’re not allowed to join the more advanced class, you need a way to tell people who’ve turned up anyway that they can’t join in, and you need a clear idea of what your levels mean. You need to publicise what’s expected of students in the more challenging classes, and you need to make it damned clear that there’s nothing wrong with doing the ‘lower’ level classes. Perhaps you need to ditch this whole concept of ‘low’ and ‘high’ and talk about these classes as teaching different material in different ways.
  • Monitor class behaviour. Pay attention to what’s happening in the room. Listen. Watch. Ask questions. And give students honest, useful feedback about their dancing that at once makes them feel awesome, and also encourages them to work hard and be self-reflexive. If you get Problem Guys in your lower classes who ignore you, boss the follows about and generally give you the shits, while still not actually doing what you need them to do in terms of dancing, you need to correct them! Let them know that that thing they just told the follow to do was wrong town. Let them know that they’re not being safe, that they’re being too rough or whatever it is. Feedback, yo – that’s what teaching’s all about! You need to move away from the idea that teachers just inject knowledge into students. It’s a process, and you need to be pro-active and self-reflexive too.
  • Model good behaviour.
  • Both the lead and follow teacher must spend equal time talking in class.
  • Lead teachers: are you interrupting the follow teacher? If you are – STOP IT. If you do – apologise, and then don’t do it again! It shows the students that you don’t think what your partner is saying is worth listening to, and it establishes you as the boss with the more important things to say.
  • Lead teachers: do you respond to your partner’s explanation of a point by paraphrasing what they say? Stop that, too. This is a tricky one, as one of the ways we do active listening, and demonstrate to our conversational partners that we’re paying attention is to paraphrase what they’re saying. This tells them we’re listening, that we understand, and that we agree. I tend to do this A LOT, and I’ve noticed that it happens way more when I’m teaching with other women than with men – women do it more (though not exclusively). But it means your students have to listen to descriptions twice (if not more, if you both get into an affirmation-spiral), and that means way too much talking and not enough dancing. Bad news!
  • Lead teachers: do you describe what the follow teacher is doing, or does the follow teacher? If you speak for the follow teacher, you are again asserting your dominance and making it clear that the follow’s body (and what they do with it) only has meaning through its relationship to the lead. This is NOT TRUE. Follows are individual hoomans, and while they are working in response to the lead, the lead is also responding to the follow. Let the follow talk!
  • Follow teachers: are you giving the follows in the class something to work on every time you do a move? Or are you just letting the lead talk to the leads about what they’re doing? If follows aren’t given tasks for their learning, they’ll get complacent (“I just have to follow and if it doesn’t work, it’s the lead’s fault”) or become passive little flowers to be moved around by the lead. Bad news!
  • Do you only teach moves where the follow spins and spins or executes a series of complicated steps while the lead remains fairly stable or in one place? If so, you are DOING IT WRONG. You’re demonstrating a poor understanding of lindy hop, but you’re also modelling a poor partnering dynamic. The follows in the class will a) become better dancers, but b) feel constantly unsure or off-balance, while the leaders a) don’t get good skills and b) develop the idea that the lead stands still while the follow carries out their leads.
  • Use steps where both partners’ contributions are built in, and an essential part of the move (eg don’t do things like say “This is the follow’s moment to shine” as though it were a one-off or special occasion thing (“Dance monkey, dance!”)).
  • Finally, remember that lindy hop is a jazz dance, with lots of improvisation. Breaking rules is part of the dance. Experimentation, improvisation and making things up is central to the dance – for both partners!
    Encourage your students to explore the full range of movement in a move, and to try as many variations as possible. And then to give each other useful feedback, and to listen to each other’s feedback. This sort of self-reflexivity will encourage students to move away from the idea of knowledge as a shopping list of items, and towards lindy hop knowledge as a constantly changing experience and relationship with others.
  • Finally, most importantly, teach solo dance. Solo dance fucks up the partner dynamic and makes it impossible for the Problem Guy to boss women dancers around. It makes women dancers more confident, and it makes it clear to Problem Guys that they haven’t learnt everything. Most Problem Guys will immediately leave your class and never come back, because solo dancing scares the shit out of them. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Problem Guys have issews, and it’s not your job to fix them.

You’ll find that Problem Guys just don’t like all this hippy stuff. They like dance classes with hierarchies and rules and proper men. So just don’t be that sort of class. Don’t create an environment that encourages rubbish behaviour. And be self-reflexive yourself.

BUT

Be confident in yourselves as teachers as well!

Finally, and most importantly:
Cherish your students. This is an important one for me. Deal with Problem Guys for your students. That can be easier than standing up to Problem Guys for your own sake.

At the end of the day, that Problem Guy who gives you the stomach-wobbles when you think about teaching classes with him in them, is really just some socially inept bully with low self esteem. You are the boss of this class. Even if you set up a lovely hippy learning laboratory, it’s your job to direct the session, to facilitate learning. And the students are ok with that – that’s why they’re there with you. And you can do this. Just make a plan with your teaching partner, make a script, practice it, deliver it. Each time you do this, you’ll get better. You’ll get more confident. And eventually you won’t need to make a script or a plan, because you’ll HAVE one!

Be mighty in the classroom, friends, because you ARE.*

*You need to say these things to yourself, ok? It’s not arrogance or bragging. It’s just being HONEST. Because Problem Guys rely on you dissing yourself. Patriarchy is made of women’s self doubt. PWR to you, sisters!

**This issue reminds me a bit of Steve Locke’s piece ‘‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’, where Locke – black American man – declines to speak to an audience about race because (basicaly) he is done with this shit. So done. And that it’s time for white men to get all up on this issue and do this work. The implication is that this is their problem, so they need to deal with it.

***Ok,now you need to remind yourself that you’re awesome. If you’re holding down a regular teaching gig, you must have some serious shit going on. You’re an administrator, a teacher, a teaching partner, you liaise with venues, you handle sound gear, you plan classes, you deal with political shit. You are THE BOMB. So hug that thought to yourself and BE AWESOME.

Learning

God I write long posts. I just sit down, write ’em, then give them a quick edit. Sorry about that. It’s how I wrote my thesis. But with my thesis, I edited the thing. I don’t edit blog posts because WHO CARES. So, brace for impact, yo.

Some friends of mine have started getting together to practice solo dance. This isn’t unusual. A very large slice of my dancing friends are working on solo dance at the moment. You know why: you don’t need to find a partner, you can practice on your own, solo dance is an excellent way to improve your dancing across the board… and so on. I see quite a lot of groups of people getting together in their own time to do some of this work. The groups change and rarely last in exactly the same combination of people for more than one or two sessions. The point is not to forge a single ‘practice group’, but for a group of friends to get together on a particular day to work on something in particular, at that moment. This mutability is partly what makes the process so powerful: the structure survives as long as it is useful, and then it changes to meet its participants needs. Or it quietly fades away.

I think this self-directed learning is a very good thing. And I think, in my city, at this moment, these sorts of casual (yet quite focussed and determined) temporary creative sessions are the product of a scene which lost direction there for a minute. We didn’t have any higher level dance classes, and dancers really felt the classes they were going to weren’t focussed enough, the content wasn’t what they wanted to work on. So they made their own. I think that if our dancers’ needs had been met by classes and workshops and formal organisations, they wouldn’t have developed solutions on their own, and we would be the poorer for it.

Again, I have to say that I think this is a very, very good thing. Planning our classes for the new year (which include a new more challenging class), I was absolutely determined not to try to replace or conflict or compete with those independent projects. We really need that self-directed learning, and that sort of innovative, independent response to a challenge is a sign of a healthy community. I’m making this point because I know some teachers in some scenes perceive other classes and other learning spaces as threats, as though dancers working outside their influence were challenging their own authority or value and status as teachers and dancers. Me, I find these sorts of projects inspiring. And they remind me that I have to keep working on my own dancing and teaching if I’m going to keep up. I also think that I need to keep tinkering with my class formats if I’m to stay relevant to my students. More simply: someone else being super awesome doesn’t make you less awesome. It should inspire you to become as awesome as you can be.

So now, let me just sketch out the learning spaces in my city’s dance scene. Firstly, we have formal, weekly classes run by dance schools. Schools dominate almost every learning space in Australian lindy hop. Institutions: we have them. There are good and bad things about this. Then we have formal workshop weekends run by those schools, and featuring visiting international and occasionally interstate teachers. We also have the occasional workshop taught by visiting teachers and run by dancers in our scene. These workshops have lots in common with weekly classes: clear hierarchies of knowledge (oh boy, do lindy hoppers luuurve clear hierarchies); formal start and finish times and dates; fixed prices.
Then we have private classes, where local and visiting teachers work with dancers individually, for a much higher price than regular classes or even workshops.
We also have troupe training sessions, where members of a troupe get together to work on routines or skills. These troupes are managed schools or individuals, and are gated: they are closed to anyone not in that troupe, and troupe membership is also gated.
And then (most relevantly for this post) we have informal practice sessions run by individuals, couples or small groups to work on their own dancing. They might be working on competition material, performances, or just getting together to explore ideas or cement material from a class. This last style is the most informal, but it still requires some organisation: studios need to be booked, times need to be set, participants need to be contacted. And then the sessions themselves need to be organised, if the group is planning to work on a single project in the session.
As you can see, these practice sessions are great for developing dance skills, but they are also GREAT for developing organisational skills, professional and personal networks, and for inspiring self-reliance and creative, personalised solutions to problems. They can also be great for teaching dancers how to deal with conflict and ‘failure’. Sometimes private sessions explode in interpersonal conflict or incompetency. Learning to come back from a heinous mess is a real craft. But knowing how to prevent them is even better.

The social dance floor is another important learning space. The social dance floor allows for the informal, ‘casual’ transmission of moves between friends and dance partners. And there’s less talking, more dancing, which is solid gold for learning dance skills. When we have a large number of follows without partners (and these are always all women), we also see these groups of women getting together on the social floor to play with moves or share ideas or practice.
I want to distinguish between this type of dancing on the social floor and ‘solo dance’ on the social floor, where people move out into the dance floor to dance. In contrast, those groups on the side of the dance floor usually involve women who are open to being interrupted, whether by dance invitations or other things.

Right here I have to note: if you’re asking yourself ‘how do I tell the difference, when I want to ask someone to dance and I’m not sure whether they’d welcome the interruption?’ you need to open your eyes. If you spend a bit of time watching and learning, you’ll figure out the difference. And, of course, the most sensible solution is to wait til the end of the song, then ask the person you have your eye on: “Would you like to dance with me, or are you rocking the solo stuff instead?” If someone asks you to dance with them, and you don’t want to, it’s totally ok to say “Hey, thanks for asking, but I’m rocking this solo stuff instead.” Or even “Thanks for asking, but not right now!” That’s right, friends, it really is that simple.*

All of these learning spaces exist in a complex web of relationships and interactions. Most people are participating in more than one of these at a time, and their engagement with a single space ebbs and flows and their needs change. So, for example, I was part of a small group of women that got together to learn a solo routine, and then performed it last year at a large dance. We got together a few more times after that to work on things, but we didn’t perform together again. But that period of working and performing together galvanised our interests, and I think was an important precursor for the weekly solo class two of us teach, and for the competition entry two others put together this year. It certainly helped us develop skills (performance, choreography, practice session management, communicating ideas, developing professional relationships) and raised our profile as solo dancers. For other dancers outside the group it put solo dance into a public forum. Got it on the radar, so to speak.

The point here, is that these learning spaces and networks change. They’re not preserved for their own sake; they have to have function and use-value. Much like the dances we do, really. If they don’t have value and functional appeal, we don’t get into them. Until they do meet our needs and appeal to us.

[Digression]
This factor proves most difficult for institutions, which aren’t always so good at accommodating or enacting change. I think that a dance school (which runs social events, workshop weekends, provides professional networks, stimulates economic development and teaches dance) needs to be agile in its practices. It needs to be able to change.
This means that class curricula need to be adapted and developed to respond to local scene fads, interests and needs. Teachers need to be continually updating and refining their teaching skills. Economic and promotional strategies need to respond to the broader economic climate. And I think a dance school’s brand needs to be resilient and to slowly change in order to expand or focus the market. All this is really quite challenging for most dance schools, mostly because they’re run by people who are dancers first and business people second. It also takes a heap of thinking and planning and some pretty serious resources. And, most importantly, I’d argue, it demands teachers and administrators stay in close contact with the needs and interests of the dancers in the scene. Running surveys doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to be out there on the social dance floor, at competitions and performances, out at dinner and generally keeping in contact with people. And it can’t just be one person all this, as that one person’s experiences will shape their perceptions of the community. It needs to be a network of different types of people. Argh! The work! And yet – the opportunities!
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Rightio, now we have an idea of (some of) the learning landscape of my city’s dance scene. There are plenty more gradations and variations, but these are the ones I want to touch on. And, of course, the ones I see and am aware of. I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t thought of, or just don’t see, because I’m not moving in the right social circles. Dang it.

Here’s where I get to the point of this post. I have a group of male friends who are involved in what they call ‘man troupe’. The name is really a bit of a joke, but the idea is pretty cool. Male friends get together to work on dance, and women aren’t allowed. Though the ‘rule’ is that a woman can come, if she brings four men with her. Of course, occasionally a woman will go along. But seeing as how those same men are also involved in other casual practice sessions that do include women, you could argue that the difference between ‘man troupe’ and other sessions is just who turns up.
But a friend made a really interesting point the other night: man troupe is about encouraging men to do solo dance, and more importantly, to get their own skills up to the level of the women dancers in our scene. This point was made in conversation, by a couple of men involved with the group, and I realised that the goal wasn’t necessarily competition with women dancers or excluding women dancers. The goal really was to work on their own dancing, in a space where the participants have similar goals and ideas about dancing, can support and encourage each other, and push themselves and their dancing to ‘keep up’ with other dancers in our scene. Which is of course the reasoning behind most informal dance practices.
But these guys also made the point that most of the solo dancing in our scene (and in many other scenes, I’d argue), is taught and danced by women. This is true. My (female) teaching partner and I teach solo dance weekly. Previous local solo workshops have been taught by women. Even our visiting teachers teaching solo workshops have been mostly women. And when we look onto the social dance floor, there are more women than men solo dancing.

This, of course, fascinates me. Women tend to gravitate to solo dancing because they’re waiting on the side of dance floor for a partner, because their scene has too few leads. It’s also quite common for a lindy hop class to default to a ‘solo class’ if there are far too few leads in the class. And then, in a more general sense, women in our culture (the mainstream, predominantly Anglo urban Australian culture), women tend to dance more, and with a greater range of moves and steps, than men. I’ve written about the discursive and social power of women solo dancing plenty of times before, so I don’t need to go into this again. But all this means that women are more likely to be exposed to, and to take part in, solo dancing.

[Digression]
The gendering of this is a direct result of the way we gender leading and following. In the small block of more advanced classes this month we built solo work’ into our classes: students had to dance the basic rhythm on their own over and over. If they were standing out in the rotation because they didn’t have a partner, they had to dance through the rhythm and work on the material anyway. If they found something getting messy with their partner, they were encouraged to stop and do it on their own for a second.
I was really surprised to see just how frightening many of the leads found this. So confronted that a handful simply couldn’t do it. They just felt too self-conscious. And some simply couldn’t stay focussed, because they weren’t used to having to work on their own dancing in the focussed way that solo dance requires. They were simply too used to the familiarity and crutch of another partner.
This worried me a bit: I see this as a serious problem in our dance community. It’s bad news for gender politics (men and women can’t function independently), and for the standard of dancing in our scene (we have to be able to dance alone if we want to dance together). More specifically, it was made very clear that many of the men in the room were seriously disadvantaged by some of the prevalent teaching practices in our scene. This silly heteronormative, conventionally gendered partnership model is bad news for men and women. And their dancing.
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I think the theme of this post today was crystallised by blue milk’s post ‘Boys and masculinity in young adult fiction’. There, the discussion centred on the importance of positive role models for boys in fiction. Or, to make my thinking clear, in creative practice. There’s also been some talk about the national HSC results this year, where girls topped maths and sciences for the first time. A fair proportion of the media coverage saw this as a dire tragedy, a sign of the hopeless feminisation of education and Decline Of Man. More sensible observers pointed out that boys were still over-represented in maths and sciences, and that perhaps the problem is not perceived declines in results, but in the pedagogic practices at work in our communities.

What’s this got to do with dance? Dancers need inspiration (things to aim for) and role models (who demonstrate how to do and be something). Dancers need a range of learning spaces to achieve a range of learning goals.

I’ve been quite concerned about male solo dancing role models in my scene for a while. I deliberately chose a young, athletic, ‘cool’, highly skilled male teacher for a workshop weekend a few months ago, because I wanted to provide a positive role model for the male dancers in our scene. I wanted our local male dancers to see just how cool solo dancing can be for men. I also wanted to them to see how this solo dancing informs a male lindy hopper’s dancing. And I wanted female dancers to see how this then improved their dancing experiences. And most importantly, I wanted dancers of both sexes to see how good dancing partnerships require two happy, healthy and enthusiastic partners.

Sure, I had some ideological goals (deconstructing patriarchy is important for men as well as women), but I also had some fairly mercenary ones as well. Our solo class has solid numbers, but we don’t see many men there. Probably because both of teaching are women. And because the class is dominated by women, and many men find an all-women class quite intimidating. In more general terms, I wanted to provoke our male dancers into critiquing their own dancing, and realising they can’t just rely on being one of a small group of male leads to assure their status. I wanted them to realise that if women dancers discover that solo dancing or leading is more fun than following complacent leads, they’ll do those things instead. And this would shake up the power dynamics in the scene. ‘Orsm’ is determined by dancing skills and funfactor rather than the possession of a dick.

This last point is a tricky one, because I don’t think the way to social change is through tearing people down. I think that feminism is about making things better for all of us, men and women. I didn’t want our male dancers to get down on themselves. I wanted them to feel so inspired by what they saw they decided they had to challenge themselves to become even more awesome.

I’m also very, very sure that to achieve broader cultural change within a community (ie to undo rubbish gender shit, to revitalise a scene, and to encourage exciting creative work), we need diversity in cultural practice. Lots of people have to be working in lots of different ways. And that they shouldn’t all be agreeing with each other. We need (friendly) conflict, critical engagement and even competition (physical as well as ideological) as well concerted effort to provoke people’s efforts.
I also think that this work has to be happening in different spaces and discourses. It has to be both self-directed, independent, tactical (in de Certeau’s sense) and institutional or strategic. I know we’re supposed to be sceptical of institutions in socialist feminist discourse, but I’m also a pragmatist. Institutions, with their centralised discourse, are very powerful tools for communicating ideas and initiating change.

[Digression]
Lots of people have asked me why I began teaching with a big dance school, particularly a school with a less than savory reputation. And my answer is that I’ve done all that independent, non-profit work in volunteer committees, and they’re sure as fuck not bastions of egalitarianism and equality. I also felt that I could be more productive and do what I need to do with the resources of a well-organised, fairly formally structured group. I’m also a bit tired of working for free. Dance projects need to be socially sustainable, but being socially sustainable also means be financially sustainable. Losing money or having no money is stressful, and a stressed out worker eventually gives up. I’m also fairly impatient with the bullshit idea that people should work for free in dance scenes ‘for the good of the community’ or as an act of historical preservation. Fuck that shit. Those exploited workers are the community, goddamnit.
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Finally, my feeling is, as always, that if something shits you, you have a few options: bitch about it, then get over it; bitch about it, then walk away; bitch about it, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. That last one is usually the option I take. I don’t have a lot of patience for dancers who complain and complain and complain about the terrible DJing, the lack of quality classes, the awful social dances, the terrible pay rates, etcetera, etcetera and then DON’T do anything about it. If we all just bitch and bitch and then just stew in our own shittiness, we’ll just get miserable and useless. For women dealing with bullshit gender politics, if we concentrate on bitching about things and then don’t follow up with action, we are participating in our own disempowerment.

What do I mean by ‘do something’? I don’t mean that you then have to go out and run your own dance events to fix the problem. Most of us don’t have the resources to do that. There are plenty of other, more achievable and more satisfying ways to be a power for good in your local community. I’ve found that it’s far more productive to back up all my rants about gender politics in the dance scene by learning to lead and then getting out there and leading. Every time people see me – a woman! – leading, I change things. Particularly if I’m having fun and it shows. It’s even easier for me to back up my opinions by encouraging other people who’re doing interesting things.

Don’t like the music? Learn to DJ. Tired of DJed music at dances? Find good bands, then tell people about them, take your friends to see and dance to them. Shitty about that lead who continually throws new women dancers into the air? Call him on his bullshit! Or, much more usefully (because those fuckwits never get the message), get in there and dance with those women dancers yourself! That way they’re less likely to tolerate fucked up bullshit from those leads that hurts and frightens and embarrasses them. And those idiot fuckwit leads will see some good role modeling and won’t have a chance to exploit their position as ‘an accessible lead’ with awful behaviour.

One of my favourite – and perhaps the most powerful – forces for change in a dance scene is the social lubricant. Walking up to people and saying ‘hi’, asking your students to dance, organising pre-dancing dinners, inviting people to work on dance stuff with you, thanking the band at the end of their set, sending a quick email to tell an organiser you loved their work, responding to general email requests for help (even if you just say ‘sorry but I can’t’), throwing yourself into a competition, planning a performance…. all that stuff is super powerful. It’s the sort of tactical, on-the-ground, grassroots force for change that really makes a difference.

And do things like man troupe. Man troupe is an exciting, practical tactic for enacting social and cultural change.

To sum all this up, then…
I think dance communities need diversity to be truly creative and dynamic. If there’s one thing evolutionary theory can teach us, its that robust communities require randomness (the mutation that provides that characteristic that helps us survive environmental change) and ‘genetic’ diversity. If we all look and think and dance the same, we’re not creative. We should all just give up and go do aerobics.

Someone else’s success does not diminish your own. Just because person X is a brilliant dancer, don’t mean that you’re less a dancer. Stop comparing yourself to other people and start celebrating other people’s successes. Take their achievement as inspiration and motivation. Work to achieve good outcomes for everyone.

Try something yourself, rather than waiting for a solution to be sold to you. This is where capitalism in dance sucks arse. You don’t need to wait for your teacher/school to give/sell you a solution to your problems. You can totally fix this yourself. Complain and bitch if you’re cranky, but then step up and get shit done yourself.

One of my favourite things about the international lindy hop scene is that learning is absolutely central. Whether you’re doing classes or figuring out how your body works.

Learning: it’s good. As we say in my house, “Don’t deny knowledge!”

*I don’t like to sexualise partner dancing, but there are parallels between sexual consent and asking someone to dance respectfully, and than accepting a polite ‘no thankyou’ gracefully. If we condition women in our scene to never say no, and we condition men in our scene to assume a woman will never say no, we’re setting up some pretty horrible power dynamics.

Basically, expecting someone to just say yes to your dance invite, whether they want to dance with you or not, is a lack of respect for that person. You don’t respect their right to make decisions about their own body. In our culture, this is gendered. Women are expected to be grateful for a man’s attention. We’re expected to drop everything when a man asks us to dance, and be grateful for the attention. Men are encouraged to assume a woman will say yes to a dance invite, even if they don’t want to dance with them. This is why I hate the ‘never say no to a dance invite’ bullshit that circulates in the lindy hop world. Damn right you can say no! And you know what? Some people just don’t want to dance with you, and you need to respect that. But you have to keep asking. Because being asked to dance is really good for the ego. As blue milk writes asking for consent is sexy. And while people say no sometimes, they also say YES sometimes.

This is also why I’m a big fan of solo dance, women learning to lead, and women being exposed to respectful, talented male dancers. Women need to know that the most important thing in lindy hop is not dancing with a man/leads. The most important thing in lindy hop is fun and pleasure and creativity and all that wonderful stuff. And all this is why I goddamn hate that mime-invitation-to-dance. USE YOUR WORDS, DAMMIT!

(Unless you don’t speak the local language or you’re asking someone to dance and don’t speak their language. Then it’s ok.)