Category Archives: thesis

The ordinaryness of the everyday and blues dance

In a post on FB, Chris asks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

linky

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

(linky)

References
Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.

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

New thoughts about the long term sustainability of dance projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Historical Recreation': Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspired in part by The Spirit Moves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Try To) Write About Jazz


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

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

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

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

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

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

Words: why are you so demanding?!

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

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

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

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

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

…but back to my story.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more

In the earliest parts of my researching into jazz history, I tried to set up a sort of ‘time line’ or map* of musicians and cities and bands. Who played with which band in what city at what time? Then where did they go? This approach was partly based on the idea that particularly influential musicians (like Armstrong) would spread influence, from New Orleans to New York and beyond.
But drawing these time lines out on pieces of paper, I found it wasn’t possible to draw a nice, clear line from New Orleans to New York, passing through particular bands. Musicians left New Orleans, went to New York, then back to New Orleans, then off to France, then back again to New York. The discographies revealed the fact that a band recorded in different cities during the year – they were in constant motion, all over America. Furthermore, musicians didn’t stick with one band, they moved between bands, they regularly used pseudonyms and even the term ‘band’ is problematic. The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, with its dozens and dozens of names, was in fact a shifting, changing association of musicians, and did not even have a fixed ‘core’ set of players. Perhaps this is why the MBRB is so important: many people played with them, and they were a band(s) which moved and changed shape, a loose network of musicians who really only existed as ‘a band’ when they were caught, in one moment, on a recording. Or perhaps on a stage (though that’s far more problematic). I wonder if that’s why it’s so hard to find a photo of them? Perhaps the ‘Mills Blue Rhythm Band’, as a discrete entity didn’t really exist?

The more I read about jazz and ‘jazz’ history, the more convinced I am by the idea of ‘jazz’ as a shifting series of relationships. I think about cities not as fixed locations, but as points on a sort of ‘trade route’ or even as a complicated web or network of relationships between individual musicians (which is, incidentally, how I think about international swing dance culture – the physical place is important, but it’s not binding).

Right now I’ve followed some references backwards to an article by Scott DeVeaux called Constructing the Jazz Tradition, which is really interesting. It not only outlines some of the political effects of a coherent ‘narrative’ history of jazz, but also the economic and social effects of positioning jazz as a ‘black music’, with interesting references to consequences of the ‘jazz musician as artist’ for black musicians. Read in concert with David Ake’s discussion of creole identity and ethnicity in New Orleans as far more complicated than ‘black’ and ‘white’, this makes for some pretty powerful thinking.
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I’m very interested in the idea of a ‘jazz canon’ and of the role of people like Wynton Marsalis, the Ken Burns Jazz discography, jazz clubs and magazines developing during the 30s and 40s devoted to New Orleans recreationism and the whole ‘moldy figs’ discussion. The tensions surrounding the Newport jazz festival also feed into this: the Gennari article (which I discuss in reference to its descriptions of white, middle class men rioting at Newport here) pointed out the significance of a festival program loaded with ‘trad’ jazz – for black musicians and for the popularising of jazz generally. I’ve also been reading about the effects of this emphasis on trad jazz for superstar musicians like Louis Armstrong.

O’Meally and Gabbard have written about the way Armstrong’s public, visual persona is marked by ethnicity.
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Armstrong was known for his visual ‘mugging’, or playing the ‘Uncle Tom‘ for white audiences, particularly on stage. Eschen writes

…as the struggle for equality accelerated, Armstrong was widely criticized as an Uncle Tom and, for many, compared unfavourably with a younger, more militant group of jazz musicians (193)

This, as Eschen continues, despite the fact that Armstrong was actually an active campaigner for civil rights in America, and overseas.

The trad jazz movement – or ‘moldy figs’ pushing for the preservation of an ‘authentic’ jazz from New Orleans – effectively pushes Armstrong to continue as Uncle Tom – unthreatening black man clowning for white audiences. A narrative history of jazz which emphasises a beginning in New Orleans and a consistent, clearly defined lineage of musicians and styles also, more subtly, relies on an idea of the black musician as powerless or unthreatening. DeVeaux makes the point that positioning jazz (and jazz musicians) as artistic loners who do not ‘sell out’ with commercial success:

Issues of ethnicity and economics define jazz as an oppositional discourse: the music of an oppressed minority culture, tainted by its association with commercial entertainment in a society that reserves its greatest respect for art that is carefully removed from daily life (530)

In this world, the ‘true’ jazz musician is ‘black’ (in a truly singular, homogenous sense of the world), he is poor and he is mugging for white audiences.
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Billie Holiday becomes a particularly attractive representation for this idea of the ‘jazz musician': poor, black, addled by drugs and alcohol, a history of prostitution, yet nonetheless, a creative genius pouring out, untainted in recording sessions (and I’m reminded of the ‘one take’ stories) and tragically cut short.
All of this is quite disturbing for someone who really, really likes jazz from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Am I buying into this disturbing jazz mythology? It’s even more disturbing for someone who found similar themes in contemporary swing dancers’ development of ‘narratives’ and geneologies of jazz dance history. As DeVeaux writes (about jazz, not dance), though, this is

The struggle is over possession of that history, and the legitimacy that it confers. More precisely, the struggle is over the act of definition that is presumed to lie at the history’s core (528)

I wonder if I should suspect my own critique of capitalist impulses in contemporary swing dance discourse?

I don’t think it’s that simple. Gabbard discusses Armstrong’s work with Duke Ellington, including the filming of the 1961 film Paris Blues (in which Armstrong starred, and for which Ellington contributed the score) and the recording of the ‘Summit’ sessions:

…at those moments in the film when he seems most eager to please with his vocal performances, his mugging is sufficiently exaggerated to suggest and ulterior motive. Lester Bowie has suggested that Armstrong is essentially “slipping a little poison into the coffee of those who think they are watching a harmless darkie”.Throughout his career in films, Armstrong continued to subvert received notions of African American identity, signifying on the camera while creating a style of trumpet performance that was virile, erotic, dramatic, and playful. No other black entertainer of Armstrong’s generation “with the possible exception of Ellington” brought so much intensity and charisma to his performances. But because Armstrong did not change his masculine presentation after the 1920s, many of his gestures became obsolete and lost their revolutionary edge. For many black and white Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he was an embarrassment. In the early days of the twenty-first century, when Armstrong is regularly cast as a heroicized figure in the increasingly heroicising narrative of jazz history, we should remember that he was regularly asked to play the buffoon when he appeared on films and television (Gabbard 298)

You can see a clip from Paris Blues here.
Armstrong’s performance gains meaning from its context, from the point of view of the observer, from his own actions as a ‘real’ person (Armstrong was in fact openly, assertively critical of Jim Crowism and quite politically active) and from its position within a broader ‘body’ of Armstrong’s work as a public performer. Pinning it down is difficult – it’s slippery.

The idea of layers of meaning is not only interesting, it’s essential. This physical performance of identity, tied to the physicality of playing an instrument reminds me of the layers of meaning in black dance. And of course, of hot and cool in dance, and the layers of meaning in blues dance and music. Put simply, what you see at first glance, is not all that you are getting. Layers of meaning are available to the experienced, inquiring eye. Hiding ‘true’ meanings (or more subversive subtexts) is important when the body under inspection is singing or dancing from the margins. Tommy DeFrantz discusses meaning and masculinity in black dance during slavery:

serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107).

Armstrong’s performance is more than simply its surface. As with any clown, the meanings are more complex than a little light entertainment. Gabbard continues his point:

In short, Ellington plays the dignified leader and Armstrong plays the trickster. Armstrong’s tricksterisms were an essential part of his performance persona. On one level, Armstrong’s grinning, mugging, and exaggerated body language made him a much more congenial presence, especially to racist audiences who might otherwise have found so confident a performer to be disturbing, to say the least. When Armstrong put his trumpet to his lips, however, he was all business. The servile gestures disappeared as he held his trumpet erect and flaunted his virtuosity, power, and imagination (Gabbard 298).

This, of course, reminds me of that solo in High Society that I mentioned in a previous post. There’s some literature discussing the physicality of jazz musician’s performances, but I haven’t gotten to that yet (though you know I’m busting for it). I have read some bits and pieces about gender and performance on stage (especially in reference to Lester Young), and there’re some interesting bits and pieces about trumpets and their semiotic weight, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, either.

Sorry to end this so abruptly: these are really just ideas in process. :D
To sum all that up:

  • The idea of a jazz musician as ‘isolated artist’ is problematic, especially in the context of ethnicity and class. Basically, the ‘true jazz musician who doesn’t sell out by making money’ is bad news for black musicians: it perpetuates marginalisation, not only economically, but also discursively, by devaluing the contributions of black musicians who are interested in making a living from their music. Jazz musicians are also members of communities.
  • Linear histories of jazz are problematic: they deny the diversity of jazz today, and its past. Linear histories with their roots in New Orleans, insisting that this is ‘black music’ overlook the ethnic diversity of New Orleans in that moment: two categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ do not recognise the diversity of Creole musicality, of the wide range of migrant musicians, of the diversity within a ‘white’ culture (which is also Italian and English and American and French and….), of economic and class relations in the city, and so on.
  • ‘linear histories’ + ‘musician as artist’ neglect the complexities of everyday life within communities, and the role that music plays therein. These myths also overlook the fact that music is not divorced from everyday life; it is part of a continuum of creative production (to paraphrase LeeEllen Friedland and to refer to discussions about Ralph Ellison – which I will talk about later on).
  • Music and dance have a lot in common. They carry layers of meaning, and aren’t simply discrete canvases revealing one, singular meaning to each reader. They are weighted down by, buoyed up by a plethora of ideas and themes and creative industrial practices and sparks.

References
DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.
DeVeaux, Scott, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” Black American Literature Forum 25.3 (1991): 525-560.

Eschen, Penny M. “The real ambassadors”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 189-203.

Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.”
Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in
Movement and Dance
. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 –
57.

Gabbard, Krin. “Paris Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It with Music”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 297-311.

Gennari, John. “Hipsters, Bluebloods, Rebels, and Hooligans: the Cultural Politics of the Newport Jazz Festival.” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 126-149.

Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,”Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.

O’Meally, Robert G. “Checking our Balances: Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison and Betty Boop”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004.
276-296. (You can see the animated Betty Boop/Armstrong film O’Meally references here.

*The jazz map was found via jazz.com, but they don’t list the url for the map in context.
There’s something seriously addictive about historic ‘jazz maps’. I think it’s because they’re imaginary places. My latest find: New Orleans ‘jazz neighbourhoods’.

crazed and manic jubilation

I just found out that my thesis was passed WITHOUT CORRECTIONS!!
I have done the crazy happy dance about 10 times already (lots of high kicks up into the air, a few twirly spin-arounds, some random jiggling).
If I hurry I can do the graduation thing in March/April.
So I am now Dr dogpossum (mostly)! Hoorah!
…remind me to write about the dance conference, will you? I met some lovely (and awe-inspiring) young dancers who work with companies like Bangarra (and how did I introduce myself? “You guys rock!” – I am all about cool. But they did – their mini-performance blew me away!), networked like a crazy person, discovered someone who has Graybags for a supes (and knows Galaxy), told some inappropriate jokes, shared Frida and the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers with a bunch of doods who understood what I’ve been trying to say about them and ate some of the best conference food EVER.
[and hoorah for the markers – the thesis was sent to them at the end of September, and they had the marks to me by today – that’s under 3 months turnaround time]

incidentally…

I had a phenomenally bad time* with campus graphics at LaTrobe while getting the temporary binding on my thesis. So bad that I refuse to take my $$ there for my permanent binding.
How is the deal at UniMelb (I can’t believe I’m asking that)?
Or at RMIT in the city?
I’m going by location, so…
*they misquoted me by $90 (!!) for the job, they ‘lost’ my thesis for a while after it was printed, they tried to send me across campus (quite a walk) to talk to the people over there when they screwed up. I said “I don’t think so – you will be sending this to me here. I am getting angry now.” They tried to charge me for a photocopy of their (screwed up) invoice. etc etc etc.
So I will not be going back there.

fate consipres against me. again.

So you guys all know that I’m in the middle of some serious last-round thesis editing, right?
The supes is back in about two weeks, I have a conclusion to (re)write, an introduction to (re)write, etc etc?
Well, this weekend past, we decided to pop down to Tasmania to see my ps and coincide with a visit from my nieces to my parents. That was all cool. Except for the bit where I do as normal and get sick. We did no walking, I sat on the sidelines like a nanna at a dance in Tasmania, I piked on a bunch of social engagements, and the only parts of the beautiful Hobart I saw after Saturday was through the parent’s lounge room windows (which is actually quite a lot, really).
RIght now I’m trying desperately to understand the written word (and to produce it too), and it’s not really working. I’ve been full of goob since Friday, though at least I’ve not napped all day today (as I did yesterday and the day before – hell, I even fell asleep during Angel the day before).
I thought I might do some work.
But I’m finding it really difficult to hold thoughts together. Reading is easy – it’s the comprehension that’s getting me. And I don’t think it’s such a great idea to try to edit/rewrite in this state.
Yeah, so that sucks, seeing as how I have the rest of this week (today, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) plus next week to do these little jobs, but we have this big dance thing on this weekend, which I think I’ll actually skip. I’m not particularly interested in the Evil Empire’s third (or is it fourth?) ‘national competition’ weekend. Particularly not when they can’t seem to run even one social dancing weekend. But we will have a lovely houseguest, which will be nice, possibly two. Then my parents will be down next week.
So yeah, thesis work?
Why is it that on the one fortnight when I really want to work my guts out, before the semester begins and teaching with it, when I really want to get this motherfucking* thesis out of the way, fate consipres against me?
Should I panic? Perhaps. But I can’t really manage to work up the energy. Plus it’s hard to breathe, and it’s not worth panicking if you’re not going to wail while you’re gnashing your teeth. Well, I could manage some wheezing (what with the lovely congested chest/sinus thing**) and a bit of moaning…
Yeah, so, ok, I think I’m going back to bed. Pick up some veggies and milk for our empty fridge on your way home, will you?
*sorry about that cuss.
**packed sinuses and blocked ears on a plane: interesting. Not as painful as I’d thought. But to feel the pressure inside my head shifting and popping and oozing was kind of unsettling.

where’s the good goddamn chocolate? WHERE?

I take time out to focus my eyes.
I’m having trouble staying focussed on these nasty chapter rewrites. I certainly can’t divide the text up into individual words any more – it’s just one blob of known-by-heart text now, and I can no longer (if I ever could) tell what’s crap and what’s not. I am relying entirely on the Supes’ scribbledy comments, praying she knows what she’s doing. The bits where she says ‘rewrite this’ or ‘need to make this clearer’ almost make me cry. Creative work is kind of beyond me right now. I’m not even sure I know what the thesis is about any more, let alone what each chapter is about.
I am definitely No Good at introductions. Each one has been so scribbled over it looks like a nest of black jellyfish squabbling over fountain pen. I just suck at this part. I’m still not entirely sure about what I should actually be doing. Because I’m just following directions now (it seemed the best idea, especially after I was instructed to edit the same section at least 3 times, crossing back and forth over the same lines, editing, reverting, editing and reverting again), I’m not actually learning anything. I do feel a bit like a real dummy.
But it’s not a sad thing – it’s kind of nice to just stop thinking (critically or otherwise) and just be told what to do. I think I want one of those menial jobs where you do repetitive tasks over and over again. Maybe I should work at McDonalds, or do a *deleted* dance class.
I’m not sure if I should be making things shorter and crisper, or longer and artier. I’m pretty sure some parts were to be longer and artier, but some parts which I had made artier are now to be reverted to crisper forms. Sigh.
And why is it that I only seem to know about 20 words, now? Surely there are more words out there in the english language?
Look, I’ll just go back to Doing As I’m Told for now, then when I’ve finished each individual chapter’s overall edit, I’ll go on and actually write (for about the zillionth time) The Introduction again (formerly Chapter One the literature review and The Introduction. And formerly-to-that Capter one: the Introduction). Can you feel my pain?
Frankly, I have no idea, at all, whatsoever, about what I’m doing, what I should do, and what counts as ‘good stuff’ or not.
Double sigh.
Where’s the good goddamn chocolate? WHERE? I’m not normally the sort of barbie who fusses over things like chocolate – you know the type. They have posters or tshirts that say things like ‘i love chocolate’. I like the stuff, but heck, there are other, more important things in my (gastronomic) life.
But right now, I just feel that it would be appropriate.

i do actually rock

Man. What a relief.
I’ve produced a full, next-to-final draft of the thesis (a week ahead of schedule, mind you), and will be sending it off to the Supes this week. Then we meet next week to discuss any final changes. It should be fine, though, as we’re really only looking at writing style and typos and stuff now. Though I’m having trouble writing the conclusion. I just can’t seem to do it. Frankly, I’m looking forward to a big long break from the thing.
After we meet, the Supes is away for a few weeks, so I’ll do dumb stuff like the bibliography (which is annoying as I’m dealing with so many online/digital references. Books are so much easier to deal with), layout, etc. Which always sounds like easy stuff, but always takes far longer than you’d ever expect.
Then, once she’s back, I guess I give it back to her, she does the final read-through, then it’s off to be printed and to get its temporary binding. Yay!
Then I sit around and wait. Well, actually, then I tutor my arse off in second semester, desperately trying to get enough money to live on while I also:
a) write articles and get them published
b) do my share of planning for MLX6 in November
c) fuss.
Then I get it all back from marking, and submit it for permanent binding. Because it will be perfect and require no further editing.*
I don’t doubt that this will coincide with the MLX. Because that is the way my life runs – it never rains but it pours.
Ok, I’m barely literate now. I think I’ll go do something entirely low-brain, like sewing or dancing or walking or something…
*for those of you not In The Trade, this is a joke – I’ve not heard or more than maybe 2 people who’ve not had to do any edits or corrections. Most people get only minor corrections. If you get major ones…well. Either your Supes sucks or you didn’t listen to your Supes.