Language is important: decolonising dance jargon

‘Gliding’* came up in a fb discussion about great things to teach brand new dancers.
Gliding is just moving around the dance floor in closed position without any particular rhythm, with or without music. In our classes, we want them to experiment with working with a partner in closed, with no pressure to perfect a rhythm or shape.

Gliding teaches them:
– closed partner connection
– floor craft
– the joy of being with a partner with no pressure to do a rhythm
– confidence to experiment on their own
– how to change direction (as a lead and/or follow).

In this discussion, there was a comment by someone using a lot of dance industry ‘jargon’. And a couple of words that I wasn’t entirely sure were being used correctly.

…or, more generously, were being used in ways I wasn’t sure I understood.

Anyhoo, I asked for clarification. And got some more jargon. Partly an ESL issue, but also partly… a confusing thing.

The biggest problem I had with this comment, was the author’s correcting our use of the word ‘gliding’:

…gliding is a modern subculture term, progressive ( in line of dance) would be the common teaching terminology.

I immediately felt very uncomfortable with this correction. Because Frankie Manning used the term ‘gliding’ to describe a more organic, natural movement about the floor (distinct from a very clear straight line). So I asked for clarification. And felt it was… massively patronising and also WRONGTOWN and full of some bullshit white elitist crap. So I figured I’d just ignore it, because life is too fucking short.

Luckily Damon Stone was feeling patient. I’m sorry I didn’t step in; it’s not cool to leave all this hard work to POC.
This is Damon’s great answer:

It feels like you are using te[rms] from one subculture of “ballroom” and applying to all other dances done in ballrooms.

The terminology of different American ballroom chains at one point differed from each other and there are still terminology differences between American and International ballroom studio associations.

When you compare both style technique, composition, and terminology between ballroom studios and the people who created the dances it isn’t uncommon to find slight to wild variations between those created by African American or Latinx peoples.

Progressive definitely implies line of dance, gliding doesn’t. Frankie definitely used the term in my lessons and classes with him to indicate dancing within a general space as opposed to on the spot or line of dance.

You absolutely could glide in line of dance and yes the earliest version of lindy hop appears to be rooted in a progressive structure but, in my experience, that was not how Frankie wanted it done.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using American or International ballroom terms of you get a lot of dancers with that background, if you teach in a that type of studio and how your lindy hoppers will also study that style of ballroom, but this dance also has a language developed by its own originating and innovating dancers, keeping that terminology in the dance is a great way to pass along parts of the culture.

I’d be super careful about correcting someone’s terminology if it can be traced to people who danced at the Savoy even if it was terminology they added to the dance well after the Savoy was torn down.

I did end up chiming in (of course I did). Paraphrasing Damon’s clever (and patient) comment, I added:

I want to emphasise this idea: if we use the language of the white-run and owned ballrooms and dance classes of the day (and now), instead of the language of black dancers who invented and owned this dance, then we are recreating and reinforcing white colonisation of black dance. An insidious sort of appropriation of black culture for white profit.

In more practical terms, a lot of the language and ‘technique’ of OGs who danced on crowded dance floors reflects the practicalities of a crazy packed dance floor. You have to behave like social creatures when you social dance.
An insistence on straight lines, slots, fixed figures, etc etc is often profoundly anti-social as ‘rules’ don’t account for crowds of humans with varying skills and attention. Not to mention actual live music.
I think that this is one of the most important parts of vernacular dance. It changes and improvises to account for the needs of real humans in social spaces <3 It _belongs_ to the people dancing it, not to a rule book and codified pedagogy. *Do a search for 'gliding' here in this blog and you'll find a bunch of posts.

Ethnicity v race

Why do I want to hang onto class when discussing race and ethnicity in dance?

A friend, Superheidi, noted recently that she’s not entirely ok with the way some white dancers use the word ‘race’. She made the point that ‘race’ isn’t accurate; we are not different races because we have different skin colour. We are all one species.

But the social or cultural concept of ‘race’ is still important. I actually use ‘ethnicity’ more than ‘race’. ‘Racism’ is often about skin colour and appearance.
But ethnocentrism is about more than skin colour: it’s about culture and identity.
If we talk about ethnicity, we can distinguish between west africans and east africans, african americans and africans. And so on. The important points become cultural and social: who a people are rather than just what they look like. This becomes super important for first nations people who have been displaced from their homelands, especially in Australia after the stolen generation.
‘Being Black’ is about identity, culture, who we are inside.

This approach also gives us a hook for talking about whiteness, and presenting different types of whiteness as ethnicity. eg white australian = largely anglo celtic; vs white dutch. Same colour skin, different culture. Different ethnic identities.
It’s a standard distinction to make in feminist studies.
And the concept of ethnicity helps us talk about things like ways of moving your body or talking, which are learnt not biological.

For me the word ‘race’ is highly problematic. I really don’t like to use it.
Unless we are talking about racism specifically, and then I need that word. Racism is a specific issue: the hatred of a particular group of people for irrational reasons (eg simply because they look different or act differently). Ethnocentrism is a more complex concept. It’s about prioritising and privileging your own ethnicity and own lived experience. It can allow us to talk about anti-semitism, where a person might not look physically different, but be culturally distinct.

If we aren’t different races (or species) at at genetic level, how do we account for tropes in particular populations? For example, the overrepresentation of indigenous Australian youth in prisons? Or higher instances of diabetes in some African American communities?

This is where intersectionality gets really useful: class is the bigger factor in black women’s high infant mortality rates. Clearly, gender is also important, as it’s women’s bodies which are regulated by anti-abortion laws or subsidising abortion under public health care acts.

And there is some interesting work on the way trauma has a physical effect on bodies (with potential genetic damage). I remember reading about something to do with aboriginal women’s experiences with malnutrition + trauma = ill health for future generations. Starvation can cause genetic or inheritable damage too. And while these symptoms might be prevalent in black women, it’s not because these women are black, but because being black in modern American or Australian society means you’re more likely to experience violence (including sexual violence), poor educational outcomes, and other economic disadvantages, not to mention poor health care services.
In Australia, these latter symptoms are a direct result of racist government policies which reduce community-centred health care services and support services.
All of these points make it clear that while ‘being black’ or ‘being white’ has clear physical effects that are inheritable, these biological elements are the product of social, environmental factors. To be clear, then: we are the sum of our biology and our culture. Who we are is the result of nature and nurture. Ethnicity, then, is a more useful word than ‘race’, because it allows for variance, for the role of environment and culture.

When I say ‘class’ I’m also referring implicitly to education: women with a lower education level are more likely to have more pregnancies, to have higher infant mortality rates, to be in lower paid work, and to die younger. No matter what their ethnicity. But when you combine class markers with ethnicity and gender, you see a more severely disadvantaged group. Why do we see particular ethnic groups caught in these intersectional binds? Well, this is where the concept of patriarchy comes in handy: it helps us see how ideology (ideas about the world) and discourse (the way these ideas are communicated) shape institutions (like schools, hospitals, governments) and society.

So ‘class’ isn’t just about how much money you earn, it’s also about other economic advantages – the suburb you live in (and the services it has), the type and length of education you get, the health services available to you in the public system (which again are often worse, and over-stretched in black areas), the food available to you (see discussions about ‘food deserts’ in urban america), broken family networks (which leads to children leaving school to care for younger siblings, etc) and so on.

This is why capitalism is a key part of patriarchy, why Cierra’s point about vintage wear being ‘expensive’ is so important, and why I think it’s essential to hang onto intersectionality when we talk about race in lindy hop.

why the black kids sit together

I was just watching this video ‘Why the Black Kids Still Sit Together’ feat. Beverly Daniel Tatum and thinking about how important it was to have critical mass of black dancers at Herrang this year in week 4.
There was a moment after the meeting when I was watching the OGs hanging out with the Frankie ambassador peeps, with teacher, dancers from all over the world. They were just hanging, talking, dancing a bit while staff tidied the hall for the dance, the DJ (me) set up for the gig, and the hall emptied out.

Watching these peeps of colour from all over the world hang out, I was struck by just how white Herrang is, and how there’s this insistence in the camp that we only listen to black music from no later than the 50s in common areas. No hip hop. No rap. No reggae. No modern rnb. None of the music that these young people listen to, own in their everyday lives.

And I thought, ‘This is some pretty fucked up shit. That white, middle class people are gate keepers for what counts as ‘legit’ black culture. And it’s the black culture that’s back there in another time, out of reach of these young people.’ And it makes me want to laugh as much as cry that the camp was stretching as far back as the 1600s to an ‘authentic’ black dance from Africa for classes, rather than just reaching out its hand to the kids who were right there in the camp, a living part – owners! – of black culture today.

That’s why the black kids sit together in the cafeteria, lindy hop.

[edit: these same points apply to why we need more women in DJing, why we need to queer it up in lindy hop, etc etc etc]

Women of colour respond to white appropriation of the margin(alised)

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s piece ‘I walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is why.’ is being linked up a bit in my book-friend circles, with emphasis primarily on Shriver and the topic of the piece. But I’m mostly interested in how the author got up the guts to walk out of this talk in such a public way. It’s essentially a marginalised woman ‘speaking up’ in a white elite space. It’s an act of bravery.

Breai Mason-Campbell’s talk ‘Dancing White: Race, America, and the Black Body…’ was linked up in a dance group last night by Ana├»s, and something about it reminded me of this keynote article. I think it’s Mason-Campbell’s highlighting of the literal framing and display of OGs* at a dance event. It’s very much like the framing and display of marginalised folk in Lionel Shriver’s keynote.

And both pieces are by women ‘speaking out’ about the appropriation of POC’s bodies and minds by people in power for their creative work. In one case the ‘speaking out’ is non-verbal and in the other it’s after the fact. Both of which reduce the ‘danger’ of these acts for the women.

But these two pieces together are making me think and rethink very carefully my approach to OGs in the modern lindy hop scene. Part of me wishes we did ‘acknowledgement of traditional custodians’ at the beginning of every dance event. And that we asked our OGs if they wanted to do a ‘welcome to country’, and if they didn’t, we didn’t go ahead.
*(Original Groovers)

Mason-Campbell’s talk (start at 37.20):