Kate Blanchett in the Aviator, rocking Katherine Hepburn stylez.
Not the best film ever (oh, Leonardo, why did you grow up?), but the sound track is AMAZING.
This is a post about Duke Ellington and dance, because he is on my mind at the moment.
I’ve recently discovered the 1951/52 stuff by the Johnny Hodges band on this dodgy digital download album Pound of Blues is really great for teaching dance, particularly choreography which recognises strict phrasing. It’s good, solid stuff, and I’ve used it for DJing in the past, though not with any particular enthusiasm. The steady, predictable phrasing of songs like ‘Wham’ on this album do not really reflect all of Ellington’s compositions, as anyone who’s tried to choreograph to ‘Rockin in Rhythm’ will know. But Johnny Hodges was, of course, a musician who played with Ellington for a long time. One of the soloists the band leader would compose for, and organise compositions around rather than forcing them to fit into a musician-shaped hole in his band.
I’d like to say that this ‘Pound of Blues’ album reminded me of the orsm of Ellington, but that’s not true. Ellington is always on my mind. I love him. I love his music and I own a lot of it. A LOT. I’m a massive fan of the Ellington small group stuff, but I’m also nuts for the bigger bands.
The Never No Lament: the Blanton Webster Band 3CD set was one of the first serious Ellington CDs I ever bought (though it was a lot cheaper then than it is now), and I bought it because dancers and DJs I admire recommended it on the SwingDJs discussion board. It’s great, but as with many of the Ellington recordings I have, the quality isn’t so great. There’s a lot of surface noise (ie scratchy crackly rubbish) and the high pitched stuff sounds awful when I’m DJing. And all that from a CD.
This last point is important, because I recently bought myself another Ellington set, Decca’s Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings 1926-1931. I’d somehow managed to miss this little chunk of Ellingtonia and I needed to rectify the problem. I went with CDs rather than the cheaper downloads because I’m finding download files – especially legit ones – are of such poor quality they make the songs unDJable. The rubbish files plus the scary sound quality of the recordings themselves are just unuseable on shitty sound systems.
I guess I do have kind of an Ellington problem. But then, he’s so interesting, he justifies a little obsessive collecting.
I used to have a long bus commute to uni which I’d spend reading my way through Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz 1930-1945 and listening along with my whole Ellington collection on my ipod. I read music (haltingly), and Schuller spends quite a bit of his time examining scores in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by everything Schuller says, but Schuller’s is an interestingly scholarly approach to a musician who was as comfortable with concert halls as dance floors.
Today’s dancers are familiar with many of the soundies and film fragments featuring Ellington’s band. Mostly because they also featured dancers. The most famous of these is probably Hot Chocolate (Cottontail), with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:
Bessie Dudley was married to Snake Hips Tucker, and she appeared with him in Ellington’s 1935 film Symphony in Black. There’s a scene in that short film where Tucker’s character throws Billie Holiday to the ground, and you can’t help but think of the verisimilitude – Tucker was a brutal, violent man who abused Dudley.
Ellington’s relationship with dancers was strong and complex. He worked extensively with dancers at the Cotton Club and on film, and travelled with Dudley and other dancers on tours. And later, as his music became more complicated and challenging, his productions with dancers and choreographers like Alvin Ailey also became more challenging.
There’s an interesting article by Patricia Willard called ‘Dance: the unsung element of Ellingtonia’ (Australians can read the full text version here, but there are other versions available online if you google). In that article Willard writes
Duke thought and spoke in dance vernacular. Maneuvering a remarkably stable roster of assertive, quirky, occasionally aggressive individualists into a consistently identifiable and cohesive big band through the decades demanded an accomplished psychologist and master manipulator, which he was. He proudly referred to his role as “The Choreographer.” (Willard)
This idea of Ellington’s music as dance music (which Willard pursues in that article) is nice. Ellington himself said “Swing is not a kind of music. It is that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, buoyant, terpsichorean urge.” (Ellington, quoted by Willard) This idea that Ellington was at once engaged in popular culture and able to move on to all that difficult artier music and concert dance is just one bit of proof of his versatility.
Most of my love for Ellington is centred on his earlier stuff and on those small group recordings. My interest tends to wane at about 1950, to be honest, but that’s not a strict rule. There’s a song called ‘B Sharp Boston’ which Ellington recorded in 1949 and which used to get around on those dodgy ripped compilation CDs as ‘Sharp B Boston’. I picked up the Chronological Classics Duke Ellington Orchestra 1949-1950 CD in about 2006, and discovered it was actually called ‘B Sharp Boston’, and that there was a bunch of other great stuff on that CD that makes for top DJing (I’ve written about this before in Duke Ellingon’s Difficult 1949-1950 period). ‘Joog Joog’, for example, is one of my favourites (I like to pair it with Doris Day singing ‘Celery Stalks At Midnight’). A fair chunk of stuff on this CD is, however, already edging over into dissonance and confusing timing which makes for challenging dancing.
These sorts of awkward combinations of note and timing really heralds bop. But years ahead of other peeps. Listening to even Ellington’s 30s stuff, you hear a hint of the dissonance that was to come. I tweeted the other day “It’s like Ellington heard collective improvisation in NOla jazz and went “hm. Dissonance.” In 1938.” And @twobarbreak replied “Look where all of Ellington’s players were from, and who they learned from. your hunches closer to right on than you think!”
Again, though, it’s fascinating that Ellington could produce excellently danceable songs like ‘B Sharp Boston’ and ‘Joog Joog’ at the same time as he was really getting into much more experimental stuff. By the end of the 40s Ellington had well and truly begun to explore crazy arse stuff that doesn’t always work for dancing. Well, unless you’re Ramona and Todd at ILHC this year
I read an interesting blog post recently (cannot remember where, I’m sorry – PLEASE let me know if you know the one I mean), where someone cleverly pointed out a couple of recent lindy hop choreographies that worked with this sort of ‘difficult jazz’. One of them was Giselle Anguizola and Nathan Bugh’s 2011 Classic Lindy entry in ILHC:
I keep an eye on Giselle, because she’s been involved in some interesting projects over the years, from Girl Jam to working with jazz bands on the streets of New Orleans. Both are interesting, not just as exercises in jazz dance and jazz dance skills, but in the enculturation of dancers in jazz tradition.
One of the things I really like about the way dancers like Giselle and Chance engage with bands on New Orleans streets is their recognition of turn taking. Soloists in a band take turns, even (especially) the vocalists. In these street jazz groups, the dancers function as soloists, taking their turn, and then stepping back to let the musicians shine. They’re not only responding to the music they hear, but also functioning as part of the band, and part of the performance. Most modern lindy hoppers barely manage to look up and see the band they’re dancing ‘to’, let alone take a moment out to admire what they hear.
And of course, all this talk of New Orleans jazz, solos and recognising individual talent within a collective ensemble takes us back to that idea of Ellington’s most radical work being a response to the interests of the musicians in his band, many of whom were from New Orleans or taught by New Orleans musicians. The most radical ‘art’ part of Ellington was perhaps his references to tradition and vernacular, everyday culture?
Other things about Ellington and dance I couldn’t fit in this piece of writing:
- My new favourite ILHC 2012 clip, Melanie and Joshua in the Lindy Hop Classic category dancing to Ellington’s 1941 version of ‘Jumpin’ Punkin’s':
The Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra’s album Live in Swing City: Swinging with Duke.
Probably the most overplayed, most popular, excellent modern big band swing album. Recorded live with a crowd of dancers, this album features the most accessible of Ellington’s work, and is an excellent gateway drug for new dancers interested in discovering swing music.
- Todd Yannacone again, this time with Naomi Uyama dancing to Ellington’s ‘Main Stem’ in about 2006:
Willard, Patricia, ‘Dance: the Unsung Element of Ellingtonia” The Antioch Review, 57.3 (Summer 1999): p 402
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press: USA, 1989.
before the Battle of Hoth, when Leia’s instructing the pilots on their escape plan, not one of the rebels in the group want to know why they are being given their orders by a woman (who, as far we know, is not a pilot like them). She’s an effective general to them, and is afforded every respect.
I have some things I want to say about the intersection of dance and audio-visual media, but I don’t have time to make a whole, proper argument. Fuck, I took 100 000 words to talk about these issues in my phd dissertation, so I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write about this succinctly.
But let me note the ideas that happened to me today. Firstly, someone else made a very interesting observation.
And he wrote:
Via BrotherSwing. This is a pretty slick video featuring Melanie Ohl. However this does highlight an interesting conundrum with these kinds of videos in that the editing is so quick that it’s hard to get a sense of how well the dancer is actually moving. I’ve seen other videos of Melanie, and she is pretty good, but the camera doesn’t stay on her for more than a few beats at a time. On one hand it does keep the casual viewer engaged, but it makes it difficult for someone trying to enjoy just the dance itself.
I’m starting to pay attention to more of this stuff as I’m making my own foray into the netherworld videography with my new camera. Plus a lot of Lindy Hoppers are now getting the opportunity to be filmed all fancy like, I’m actually working on a short video which I may post very soon.
Also, this seems to be a part of a series of videos focusing on different dancers doing different dances, so if you enjoy this, check out the user’s main page for more.
I’ve been paying (some) attention to the way dancers’ve been getting into vlogging lately (eg Mike Pedroza is using youtube and Jerry is making interviews and other fun things (again via youtube, but with his blog and FB page as the key delivery tools)) and I’m always interested in dance-musician video projects.
This is partly because I’m a dance nerd, but much more because I spent a really long time learning and reading and thinking and writing and teaching about media and audiences at uni. I’m really, really, really interested in audiences and modes of participant-consumption (no, I am not ok with the term ‘produceage’). That’s really how my phd began: how do dancers use digital media in everyday dance practice? I wrote about AV media, DJing, email lists and discussion boards, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about this stuff. I guess I just can’t get away from the idea that dancers are all about the body – the face to face interaction – and yet swing dancers are very into digital media. There are all sorts of interesting class, culture and ethnicity issues at work here.
In my own work I carefully avoided talk about Cartesian splits, because I don’t think it’s a terribly useful model. Dancers don’t divide their brains and their bodies, and to insist that dancing is always and forever a thing of the senses and the body, is to devalue the work of choreography and the social labour of production and consumption surrounding the dance floor… or those three minutes on the dance floor. Just as I feel that it does musicians a disservice to dismiss the best jazz as ‘creative magic’, I think it is a mistake to talk about dance only as creative magic happening in the body.
I think that the dancers who achieve the greatest things do spend a lot of time thinking about dance, and how dance works, but they spend even more time on the dance floor, moving, and finally (and always?) they are thinking with their bodies. So I don’t like that idea of a mind/body dichotomy. And we do need to consider the idea that thinking about dance can happen via digital media as well.
I know I’m not the only one who can’t watch dance videos before bed because they keep me awake. I’d always joked about ‘Pavlov’s lindy hopper‘, but then I came across an article by Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Julie Gre`zes, Daniel E. Glaser, Richard E. Passingham, and Patrick Haggard called ‘Seeing or Doing? Inﬂuence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation’. Basically, if you wire up a dancer’s brain and then observe them watching a particular dance choreography, the same bits of their brain fire as they would when that dancer was themselves dancing that choreography. CRAZY. So – and I extrapolate wildly and without substantiation here – when I’m watching solo charleston videos before bed, my brain starts firing, and it’s as though I’m dancing that charleston. And then we all know how long it takes to calm down after a bit of crazy charleston. I’m also beginning to suspect that a DJ (who is also a dancer) experiences the same brain-work while they’re DJing and watching the floor. So a DJ who watches the floor should – boy, this is getting precarious – should be a better DJ for this doppelgängering effect. Yes, I know doppelgänger probably isn’t the right word or term to describe this. Mirroring – the term Calvo-Merino et al use – is far more useful.
So, yes, let’s talk about this in terms of ‘thinking with the body’. That idea is useful when we think about choreography – and probably even teaching dance – because it gives the observer a way to feel what is going on in the body of the dancer who is being observed.
Yes, yes, but what has this to do with Jerry’s original post?
This is what I wrote in response to Jerry’s facebook post above:
Oh Jerry, I think I love you. This is so totally up my (media studies) alley!
There’s quite a bit of literature in cinema studies about filming dance. I guess the tension lies in filming dance-as-spectacle in itself (where you basically just set up the camera to film dancers’ whole bodies from a fixed position) _or_ filming dance-as-narrative, where you cut, pan, edit, etc to tell a more complex story about dance and through dance.
I saw a very interesting conference paper by Tommy DeFrantz a few years ago, where he talked about Hype Williams and a “black visual intonation” in music video (Believe the Hype: Hype Williams and Afrofuturist Filmmaking’, ‘Refractory’, Thomas F. DeFrantz, Published Aug 27th 2003). This was basically looking at how we might make music video (featuring black music and dance) in a way that reflects the rhythms and intonations of black music and dance itself. In the simplest terms, that might mean cutting and editing film in a particular rhythm. This immediately makes me wonder what a film cut in a ‘step step triple-step’ rhythm might look like.
Another fascinating example of this sort of thing is the Two Cousins video:
On one level the choreography has been put together as a response to the song. The first ‘scene’ gives us Ryan dancing ‘in time’ to the song ‘Two Cousins’. The film then cuts immediately to a slow-mo pulled-back shot of Ryan dancing, with a busier, more exciting part of the song overlaid. There’s an interesting tension between the more exciting music, the exciting dance steps and the effect of slow motion itself.
I think two of the reasons so many people were irritated by the Slow Club video was that it cut and edited the choreography ‘out of sync’, and it also messed with the speed of the choreography – slowing things down and speeding them up. So our dancer’s eye was continually frustrated by an inability to follow the patterns of the choreography ‘in real time’. Lindy hoppers are pattern matchers, and it’s very frustrating to not get to see the entire pattern of the choreography laid out in real time, so we can comprehend the ‘story’ of the choreography itself – the repeating patterns and rhythms. Refusing to let us see the pattern builds tension (and frustration); we never get the release of closure or pattern-repeating.
In contrast, lindy hoppers tend to really love films like the original Al and Leon videos:
In these videos there are no cuts, just a few very slow pans. With no cuts, we don’t get that feeling of anxiety about ‘missing’ something that’s been ‘cut out’ of the film: we see the whole thing, in real time. We get to see the patterns and rhythms.
I’m totally fascinated by all this. I’ve written an article about how dancers’ use of AV media changed the way the original films worked as texts. We cut out the ‘dancing bits’ and watch them in isolation from the broader film narrative (which films like Hellzapoppin actually were designed for – censors cutting out the bits that broke race laws). But then we also do things like watch and rewatch, and then watch and rewatch _parts_ of that original scene, out of order. Dancers: we’re all about imposing our own narrative flow. Just like all audiences, really.
Now, to tie all this together. I think, when I wrote about this frustration that dancers feel watching the Two Cousins video, I was referring to a sort of tension (yes, I do overuse that word, but it’s a good one to describe this feeling) that you might feel if you watched this video as a dancer. The Pavlov’s lindy hopper effect kicks in, but then it’s not taken to completion; we don’t get that good old adrenaline contact high from watching this video. Mo frustration!
But this is of course all just speculation on my part. And even I’m highly skeptical. It seems far more likely that the negative comments about the Two Cousins video stemmed mostly from an intellectual and creative frustration with the cutting and ‘obscuring’ of these two gifted dancers. Finally – a high quality video of two of the most difficult-to-catch-on-film, most talented male dancers of our era – and we can’t even SEE THEM! And I’m sure we don’t even need to go into the aesthetic and creative frustrations we feel watching the Two Cousins clip.
Here is where I might insert a bit of talk about the perils of narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey, the male gaze and avant garde cinema. I could go on about how we should be deeply suspicious of submerging ourselves into narrative cinema, and how it is the opiate for our active, interrogative minds. But I can’t support that argument, because I am – unashamedly – a fan of the good story well told. And as someone getting interested in choreography, I’m extra interested in how story structure can work with music and dance to convince audiences they like what they see. I could quite happily go on and on about repetitive structures and just how useful they are for telling stories in dance, but that is way too far OFF THE TRACK even for me. So it’s back to dancers bitching.
So, really, there were lots of reasons for dancers to find the Two Cousins video frustrating. As audiences with shared values (which I guess is how non-corporeal audiences are determined – individuals become audience through shared viewing and shared viewing practices and values), it’s not surprising so many dancers were narked.
But then, it’s also possible to write about the Two Cousins video with some degree of joy as a dancer. I wrote about some of my good feelings about the video in my Two Cousins post.
But even I can’t maintain that blissed out lindy love feeling. I tried to discuss some of the issues of race and discursive and mediated power at work in this and other video performances in ‘Historical Recreation': Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance. And I went over the details in Another look at appropriation in dance.
That last post about cultural appropriation draws on Tommy Defrantz‘ work, implicitly if not explicitly. Tommy’s work has had a profound effect on my thinking about gender, class, race, dance and power. He is one of the few academic scholars whose work on black dance history can be trusted absolutely. And he’s a dancer himself.
This whole post is leading me to the point where I link you up with this lovely video, Thomas F. DeFrantz: Buck, Wing and Jig:
Which you should then follow up with Thomas F. DeFrantz: Dance and African American Culture:
I especially like the part where he says:
Social dances are hugely important to help us understand how people live their lives. Because in the social dances we see the transformation of physical gesture that people do every day into creative practice, but we also see the fantasy life of social gesture that people don’t get to do in their everyday. …we might see social dances that let people… release all that energy in really unexpected ways.
So Defrantz at once describes social dance as a place where everyday movement is transformed into dance (this is something that gets talked about a lot in other discussions of vernacular dance – especially in LeeEllen Friedland’s work), but also as a place where fantasy lives can be lived out. So we put our ordinary everday into our social dance, but we can also make social dance a place where we live out our fantasies.
This makes lots of sense when you think about gender and dance, and I’ve written before about how social dance might give young women in particular a place to play with gender: femininity, sexuality, desire, and public displays and enactions thereof. But I have always really liked Paris is Burning as an example of shared, public, social, collaborative, creative – fantasy – play in dance. In that film, a ballroom becomes the place where any fantasy about sex, gender, power, beauty, desire, grace, creativity and artistry can be played out.
In an extension of that final point, then, when dancers get to see films like the ‘My Baby Can’t Dance’ video (which I describe in New Chic in Jass), you can see how the camera’s longer, lingering ‘gaze’ upon those dancing bodies (those talented, well-lit, well-dressed, well-known dancing bodies) provides a sort of visual and physical pleasure. I’m not talking sex, here. I’m talking about that Pavlov’s lindy hopper effect. We get the pleasure of seeing someone talented doing a choreography we really like, and we also get the physical/mental pleasure of our observing brain firing and delivering up a good dose of adrenaline.
Now, I’m treading dangerously (frighteningly) close to phenomenology here, and I have to say: do NOT want. I also think that the arguments or ideas I’ve set out here are HIGHLY spurious. You should be very, VERY skeptical of the things I am saying.
But at the same time, aren’t these very tempting, very delicious ideas? Isn’t the thought of getting a ‘contact high’ from watching a dance video a little like an unwrapped block of best Swiss chocolate? Don’t you just want to get all up in its grill?
It’s not only because I’m obsessive compulsive and get visceral pleasure from groups of objects arranged systematically on flat surfaces that I love this little fillum.
Last night there was a lunar eclipse, and I was up at midnight to see it. It was an amazing thing, but now I am feeling the late night in my bones.
I’m ‘preparing’ for another Speakeasy (10:30pm next Friday night, Crossover studio, 22 Golburn St, Sydney), when I should really be lying on the couch watching Nick Cage rage against the injustice of his severed hand before being ravished by Cher. I should perhaps also be eating a little high-end chocolate.
But no. I’m fucking about with my music.
Last night I went to my second dance christmas party of the year, and it was good. Both dances featured Pugsly Buzzard, which is pretty ok, as he is pretty damn good. Last night he was playing with a drummer and a broken legged tuba player (there’s a joke in there somewhere), which was kind of odd, considering the crowd was mostly rock n rollers (that school teaches rock n roll and lindy hop). But it all turned out ok in the end. Most of us can get behind a bit of dirty Fats Waller or growly early rhythm n blues. I danced my pants off, sweating through three shirts and asploding my poor knees. I was leading an awful lot, more than following, and by the end of the night I had complete brain drain and couldn’t string two moves together. Need. More. Moves.
I think my favourite part of the night was dancing to a particularly awesome mashedup version of ‘Shake That Thing/Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’ with a really fun friend who also likes to dance de solo, and also does dancehall, so she’s packing serious hip isolation. No, wait, the best part of the night was dancing with her near some older rock n rollers. Older rock n rollers can be very conservative about gender stuff, so they were quite disapproving.
Actually, I know my favourite part of last night was after the band had finished, watching Bruce and Sharon dance to a rock and roll song and finally understanding why people dance rock and roll. I really can’t stand that partner stuff where the guy kind of hunches forwards with his elbow glued to his right hip, his arm bent 45 degrees, and kind of bobbing his head up and down, looking at the floor while he spins and spins and spins his partner. Boring Town. But Bruce and Sharon – with their exciting, dynamic amazing dancing of amazingness – made me realise what the big deal is, and I was almost moved to Cross The Floor and take up something a little more modern. Almost.
I liked it that the gig was at the Marrickville Hardcourt Tennis Club, which is also a Portugese social club, and that meant the food was interesting. This is one of the positives of the Australian social club scene. And I liked very much that the band played that Donald Harrison/Dr John version of ‘Big Chief’. The nice thing about a crowd from different dance styles and scenes is that there’s going to be someone out there who will give each song a go.
But today I am feeling very seedy.
Last night followed a busy Friday night where Alice and I taught at Swingpit and I realised that when I’m teaching dance I’m just as ‘on’ as when I’m tutoring or lecturing, except I’m doing the equivalent to aerobics at the same time.
I was so bloody buggered afterwards. It was total fun, though, and it was really nice to talk about Frankie Manning to a bunch of new dancers, and the importance of pretending you’re a 90 year old man on his third hip. I think the best part of teaching is figuring out that the silliest (yet most authentic) jazz steps make other people giggle like fools as well. It’s very, very nice to see people who enter the room shy and uncomfortable at their first dance class transform into exhibitionists, simply through the power of ridiculousness. I’m also kind of fascinated by the fact that I’m talking about pretending to be a man when I’m dancing while I’m standing in front of a crowd of men who then use me as their model for movement. Genderflex to the power of n, to the point where it’s not even really worth bothering trying to figure out whether we’re using ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ movements. And I keep coming across deaf dancers, dancers who really get what’s happening in dance. Oh yeeaaah.
After we finished that, I social danced like a crazy person until I realised I was dying of dehydration and a bit tired and overwhelmed by the noise and had to sit outside for a little bit. Then I danced some more.
I do love dancing. I love it so much. And I’m quite enjoying not DJing as much. More dancing. More. Now I am madly frustrated by my lack of moves for leading. Luckily, there’s a solution for that problem.
Ok, so now I’m sitting on the couch, kind of melting in the humidity, but at the same time still stupidly dehydrated. Trying to get my brain around some music for the Speakeasy, and not doing so well. Everything feels a bit loud and a bit annoying. Really, the only solution is a little Japanese funk.
Or, really, a bit of light weight soul would be a better fit. I really like this particular version of I Need A Dollar by Aloe Blacc:
But, really, the best of all things is a bit of Sharon Jones
All that is the kind of action that goes down well at a Speakeasy (I’ve written about this event lots of times because I love it). I know, the name suggests a sort of 20s vibe, but it has that name because that’s what it was at first. But now it is legit. I like to do this soul/funk stuff, but I find it gets a bit old after a while, and I really tend to lean on people like Big Mama Thornton and then over into the gutsier vocal blues at higher tempos. Last time I did this gig, I really wanted to play the Propellerheads doing ‘History Repeating’ with Shirley Bassey because I remember dancing to it in nightclubs, but it doesn’t actually work that well when you compare it to really good music. I mean, it’s good, but it’s not brilliant. Shirley Bassey is, though.
I really like the way all this stuff is in stereo. It kind of blows my brain.
Really, a successful Speakeasy set ends up being 3 parts NOLA, 1 part Big Mama Thornton. But right now I think I need to watch Olympia Dukakis disapproving of weak-willed men for a couple of hours.
Appropriation, step-stealing, cultural transmission, imitation, impersonation, copying, poaching….
So my last chunky post ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance has kind of hit like a ton of bricks. Cultural transmission in dance – the movement of dance steps and forms and ideas between and within cultures – is pretty much my core research interest, and I definitely don’t want to leave this topic just yet. I certainly didn’t want to leave things with a fairly despairing discussion about blackface and discomforting appropriation.
This is a very long post, and it’s divided into these sections:
- 1. What is cultural transmission?
- 2. Power, class, identity and cultural transmission
- 3. Cultural transmission via Star Trek fans
- 4. Cultural transmission between generations
- 5. Improvisation, making stuff up and dance-as-discourse
- 6. Improvisation, making stuff up and ballet
- 7. Cultural transmission in dance as politics
- 8. Everyday life and cultural transmission in dance
- 9. Cultural transmission in modern day lindy hop
- 10. Historical recreationism, gender and having a clue
- 11. Being right on and doing historical recreationism: fan SQUEE
- 12. Putting it all into practice: an example
- 13. Dancing in drag
- 14. Eccentric dance: where I’d like to live
- 15. References
Right. What do I mean when I talk about ‘cultural transmission’. Basically, in this context, I’m talking about the movement of cultural ‘stuff’ – in this case dance steps/rhythms/styling/etc – between cultures. But why stop there? I like writing long posts, and this is such an exciting topic. So strap in.
(photo of Willi Ninja stoled from here)
A fairly simple example of cultural transmission in dance would be the movement of vogueing from queer culture to mainstream pop culture via Madonna’s 2006 Vogue video clip. The 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning is a cool beginning place for looking at this stuff, and you can watch Part 1 of Paris is Burning on Youtube. You can see Will Ninja dancing in the Malcolm Mclaren Deep in Vogue music video.
Wait. I’ve just dated myself. Ok. So another cool example is the way Krumping was promoted in the mainstream by David LaChapelle’s 2005 film Rize. Fark. My cultural references – they are out of date! And I don’t want to suggest that just one film or music video is enough to stimulate the shift of a dance from marginal to mainstream spaces. There’s quite a bit more going on, and quite a few more people involved in the process, from dance teachers to performances by lesser-known dancers to trends in night club cultures and DJing interests.
Basically, we’re talking about dances moving from one cultural context (in these cases queer culture and urban African American youth street dance culture) to another (mainstream, predominantly white-owned and organised music industry). These two examples suggest that this cultural transmission thing is a matter of one rich, powerful culture ripping off another. Maybe. But cultural transmission is more complicated. Not every example of borrowing or step stealing is dodgy.
I often talk about the cake walk as an example of cultural transmission, and I’ve listed a bunch of references for my ideas about cake walk in Dance competitions and policing public space. In this case, slaves borrowed particular movements from the culture of the slave owners. And then fucked with it. This is a bit more transgressive than Madonna having some kids vogue in her video clip.
But I do think we need to keep Katrina Hazzard Gordon’s words in mind: “Who has the power to steal from whom?” What are the broader power relationships at work in the society where this transmission is happening? Who has the most money? Whose opinions and beliefs are most frequently presented in the media? Which types of sexual relationships are presented as ‘normal’? Yes, it is possible for less powerful people to steal dance steps from other groups, but what does it mean when they do?
If we’re going to do informed thinking about this, we have to recognise that societies and relationships are structured by class, by gender, by sexuality, by age, by ethnicity and so on. The choices we can (and are allowed to) make, the way we dance, is affected by who we are, as social beings. If you totally believe that none of this matters, and that the individual is simply who they have made themselves, then this is not the post (nor the blog) for you. I’m not saying that we are powerless to change our fates, but I am saying that it is naive to assume that we are just the sum of biology or individual choices. Social animals, yo.
In my work I’ve argued that cultural transmission involves some sort of ideological and structural reworking for the thing or practice being transmitted. Dance steps aren’t just carried, whole, to new cultural locations and traditions. They get changed a bit. They’re usually toned down for conservative mainstream audiences. There’s quite a bit written about this, stacks talking about hip hop, but quite a bit on partner dancing. For example, Jane Desmond talks about mambo and its popularity in white communities in the 1950s, and Sheenagh Pietrobruno discusses salsa classes in Montreal. But this repackaging of marginalised practice for mainstream consumption isn’t restricted to dance. Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar playing was retuned for white audiences. The recent remake of Hairspray pretty much undid all the badass subversion of the John Waters original – folks got whiter, language got cleaner, dances go duller, drag queens got undragged.
It’d be easy to just give up, to dismiss cultural transmission as indelibly marked by class and power and ethnicity and the work of The Man. But then, you’d be giving up before you got to the good part. Yes, the commodification of dances like mambo and lindy hop can be read as the appropriation of street dance by elite groups in the mainstream. But cultural transmission doesn’t work in only one direction. We hoomans, we’re complicated beasts. And terribly creative. Cultural transmission can be subversive and exciting.
I developed my ideas about step stealing and cultural transmission by way of fan studies. Or, more specifically, by way of textual poaching, Camille Bacon Smith and women SF fans. Women who wrote slash fiction. The idea here, is that fans of the Star Trek television show imagined whole new lives for the heroes, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. Whole new relationships. In the tv show Spock and Kirk are platonic friends. Very good friends. But in the imaginations of fans, they could be so much more.
I really like this idea that characters in a story have entire lives we don’t see. I also really like the thought of fans – people who are painted as helpless consumers – totally fucking up the myth that they are victims of aggressive television. Basically, I took this idea of textual poaching (where fans ‘poached’ characters or stories from mainstream media texts) and applied it to dance. Thing is, I wasn’t the first person to get up on this idea. Frankie Manning himself had a reputation as a hardcore step stealer. Someone who’d copy your steps, then pull them out himself. Of course, the trick lies not in creating an exact copy of that original step, but in remaking it and performing it a new and unique way that makes people SQUEE. And Frankie certainly made people SQUEE. Nor was he first at this. It’s a feature of vernacular dance generally.
I’m also very interested in the transmission of dance steps and forms across generations. It stands to reason that young people gonna do young people things, and there are types of dances which they’ll invent to suit their needs and interests. Lindy hoppers totally understand this. We regularly tell each other stories about how the swingout was an adaptation of the European partner dance format. Or, to be clearer, there’s a story about how Shorty George Snowden and his partner broke out into open during a dance contest, and totally blew people’s brains. And of course, there’s also the story about how Frankie Manning and Freda Washington, keen to bring something new to win a dance competition pulled out the first air step and blew people’s brains with that.
Vernacular dance happens in cross-generational spaces, from homes to street parties and church dances. There’s quite a bit written about this: Katrina Hazzard Gordon has a book called Jookin’, LeeEllen Friedland talks about this in reference to tap dance and hip hop. As a result, dance forms do not simply die out or disappear when the current generation moves on to something else. ‘Old’ dances live on in the dancing bodies of older people in the community, and are regularly revisited and ‘borrowed’ by younger people.
Jonathan David Jackson argues that black movement traditions are ‘choreologically contemporaneous’. That’s another way of saying that new dance steps and styles (like lindy hop in the 20s/30s, breakdance in the 70s/80s) develop at the same time as old fashioned steps stop being popular with young people. Jackson argues that rather than disappearing, replaced by new steps, old steps are recycled.
principles of physical, spatial, aural, and qualitative action are passed on from one tradition to the next (41).
This is pretty exciting stuff. It means that lindy hop didn’t die out in the 1950s. It just changed shape. This also means that older dances are continually revived and rediscovered by younger people. How? By watching old folks dance, by learning from old folks. But also by the fact that principles of movement (balance, spatial awareness, everyday rhythmic movement) persist in a community. They don’t just disappear.
I really like this cross-generational aspect as it encourages a relationship between young people and older people which is based on mutual respect, and cements the role of older people in our community. I once gave a talk at a conference on cultural transmission in dance where there were some young Indigenous Australian dancers from Bangarra in the audience. I ended up talking about this idea of learning dance from elders with a young koori woman choreographer. We were both excited about the idea that our dance cultures were so community-rooted, but we each also had frustrations about how this could limit what we did as women dancers. In her case, there are some warrior dances which women aren’t allowed to learn, but which she found particular exciting and inspiring. So there are limitations to this cross-generational stuff as well.
Yet this cross-generational ‘choreography’ also implies and responds to social change within the community and wider society. Lindy hop was a response to the development of swinging jazz and the rise of the Harlem renaissance: new music demanded new dance steps. Jazz, at its most fundamental level, combines improvisation with formal structure. For me, this is the most exciting part. Jazz music is vernacular music (or it was – I’ve been meaning to write about jazz’s shift from folk or pop music to ‘art’ music). Jazz is also all about improvisation – making stuff up. Innovating. Changing. Being flexible enough to bend and respond to the user’s needs and ideas. So jazz dance has to be the same way. It’s all about innovation, improvisation, change, response.
So, if innovation and change are essential parts of vernacular dance, what about concert dances like ballet? I’d argue that they’re all about managing change and in many cases restricting it, preserving dances as they are. But even there, choreographers and dancers are innovating. And it’s certainly true that vernacular dance is also carefully managed. There are, for example, some dances you wouldn’t do in front of your parents. Frankie Manning used to tell a story about his mother going out to dance in a way that she didn’t think was appropriate for a young boy to see (let alone do). This is an example of how dance at once reflects cultural and social mores, but is also regulated and managed by community values. Just like ballet, only it’s done in a different way.
George Balanchine is a good example of a ballet dancer and choreographer who brought African American movements and aesthetics to ballet, pushing some barriers (not without challenges) and introducing new ideas to a fairly resistant culture.
(Katherine Dunham, 1943 Life Collection)
Katherine Dunham was a dancer and choreographer who did similar work, stretching concert dance with movements and shapes and ideas from other cultures. In this case, we can see clearly politicised goals at work – Dunham was making it clear that ballet and ‘elite’ white mainstream art dance was enriched by contributions from other dances and other dance cultures.
(1939 image also from the Life collection)
Pearl Primus is another example of a black woman dancer moving into ballet/concert dance and bringing with her quite radical ideas about movements and types of movement.
These are all examples of ethnicity and concert dance as a place for cultural transmission. I talked a bit about the specific changes and differences between these different dance traditions in gimme de kneebone bent. I’m really excited by the idea of dance as a product of culture as well as physiology. Our sense of aesthetics in dance is informed not only by our cultural values and who we are, as social beings, but also by our ideas about gender and beauty and art generally. This is partly why I get so worked up about shoes. High heel shoes make feet seem smaller and pointed, and the leg seem longer and straighter. Legs in heels aren’t some sort of objective marker of ‘beauty’. Feeling that legs in heels is ‘sexier’, ‘more feminine’, ‘better’ than legs in other shoes is a product of how we are raised, of social/economic class, the culture we live in, and how we think about bodies and beauty. And not everyone shares these ideas. I simply think it’s a mistake to box ourselves in with limited ideas about what can be beautiful or skilled dancing. We are capable of such wonderful things; why limit ourselves to just one small corner of that?
So change (often through individual improvisation and innovation), is a necessary feature of vernacular dance. Re-presenting everyday life in dance lets dancers express themselves, and engage with the ideas and powers of their local community and wider society. This become especially important when the dancers involved do not have access to the ‘official public sphere’ – to newspapers, films, mainstream media, public lectures, the education system and so on. Dance can give disempowered folk a chance to recreate gain ‘control’ of their often hostile everyday life.
Vernacular dance – street dance, folk dance, rather than concert or stage dance – are responses to people’s everyday lives and environments. So you see types of movements in vernacular dance which echo the dancer’s everyday movement and lifestyle. LeeEllen Friedland talks about rhythmic movement in day to day life, arguing that when you live in a culture where music and dance are part of everyday life, there’s no clear line between ‘dance’ and ‘rhythmic movement’. So, for example, the basic charleston step which we lindy hoppers are nuts about, is structurally very like walking. The arms swing, the legs move forwards and back, the bounce which generates energy in the movement originates in the torso (or core) travels out through the body, to the arms and hands. Just like when you walk. More specifically, there are plenty of jazz steps which are deliberate references to everyday activities and movements. For example the ‘cherry picker’ (or I’ve heard it called ‘praise allah’) looks just like reaching up to pick cherries, then down to put them in a basket.
One of the things I’ve especially liked is the thought of dancers imitating real live people in their neighbourhoods. Or ‘types’ of people. The pimps in Harlem. Sailors on the docks. Plantation owners. For a people without access to the mainstream media, dance offers a right of reply, a discursive space for the thrashing out of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the management of public identities and social norms.
What all this then means is that dance becomes an extension of everyday life, rather than a discrete, separate activity.
That’s pretty much what my research was about. Except I then went on to talk about what happens in modern day lindy hop contexts. Because I was grounded in media and cultural studies, I was particularly interested in how dancers today use digital media to do all this. I talked about digital video clips and learning dance steps and sharing dance ideas cross-culturally. I also talked about online talk and developing and cementing international and inter-scene relationships via online talk. And I talked about DJing using digital tools.
Ok, so let’s go there. Let’s talk about modern day lindy hop and cultural transmission. If we can agree that black American dancers imitating and step stealing and poaching is empowering and subversive, what does it mean when modern day dancers start doing this stuff? I think it can be highly problematic (as I described in ‘Historical Recreation’: Fat Suits, Blackface and Dance. But we can’t stop there. What about Korea? What about Japan and Singapore? What about black American dancers today learning lindy hop? What about Asian-Australian dancers imitating Dean Collins? Shit is wacked, right? I mean, we can’t just write off the modern lindy hop project as fucked up appropriation or racism. For every blackface performance there’s stuff like this:
This is, of course, a group of Korean lindy hoppers making a birthday greeting for Frankie Manning, combining traditional Korean song and dance with the shim sham. It’s the ultimate mark of respect for an older man, a teacher, and a hero for these young Korean people. It’s also a brilliant example of cultural transmission, combining all sorts of musical and dancing influences. I think Frankie would have adored it. I know I do. It makes me tear up with its sincere respect and affection for Frankie Manning.
And we have to think about the Two cousins video clip. Neither of the men in that clip are African American, but they are of African descent, and they are thoroughly grounded in the history of this dance, both creatively and politically. I remember Ryan François talking about how important it was a young black British man to discover lindy hop and Frankie Manning. This recreationism can be suspect, but it can also be wonderful and empowering and exciting.
I’ve talked a lot about race and ethnicity here. But let’s talk about gender and sexuality.
I have some reservations about a hardcore historical recreationist approach to lindy hop today. Mostly because, hey, we don’t live in the 1920s, 30s or 40s. Yes, the costumes and the music and the dances are fun. Super fun. And it’s totally ok to spend lots of time and effort into recreating them. But the 1920s, 30s and 40s weren’t terribly awesome places to live. Particularly if you weren’t white. It was even a bit shit if you were a woman. I mean, I like the right to vote, to own property, to divorce. I like having clean water and food, and good solid health care. I like knowing my child won’t die from polio or that I won’t die from a botched abortion on a kitchen table because I didn’t have access to safe contraception. And I’m a white woman. If I’d been black, in America or Australia, things would have been way shitter.
I don’t want to recreate those days. I don’t want to pretend that they were so wonderful and great. And I think that if you’re going to get into historical recreationism, you need to be very aware of your own privilege and power, and of the broader historical contexts of the clothes and music and dances you love. I mean, a Pearl Harbour dance, today? Not so cool. Blackface? Again, you gotta have a think about what that meant at the time, and what it means now. This is why I’m really not ok with WWII themed dances. I’m not at all ok with planning a dance – a good party time – based on the idea of conflict that killed so many and to which my own grandparents were so seriously opposed. Sure, I think we should remember these conflicts, but I also think we should think about those wars and the meanings behind the symbolism we just mash into our dance events.
Ok, so how do I reconcile all those misgivings with my absolute passion for the dances and music of the period? How do I do recreationism without giving myself the shits? Firstly, I go for the intent and the ideas behind and within these dances. Lindy hop, jazz dance, vernacular dance can be so subversive. Think of that cake walk, the mocking of slave owners, the thumbing of the nose to the oppressor. That’s an excellent idea. Think about impersonation and derision dance – speaking back, responding to bullshit politics on the dance floor. This is exciting for me because it is non-violent, creative activism. But it can also just be plain good fun. I mean, it blows my BRAIN that leading in lindy hop can at once be so incredibly subversive (a woman making decisions? a woman, complete without a man? unpossible!), but is also (and more importantly) so much FUN.
I’ve always thought that while getting angry about injustice is useful for galvanising the self, it’s also bloody depressing. Eventually, I need to get active and to empower myself. And I see being physically strong and capable (to the best of my ability), being creative, finding pleasure in my self and my own body as the most exciting way of fucking over the patriarchy. I mean, the sweetest, finest revenge is simply being happy and confident. Particularly in my culture, where the ‘beauty industry’ is all about trying to make me anxious and self-doubting. I choose not to waste my time and worry on what my hair looks like or whether I’m pleasing some man. I choose to spend my worry and time on getting that goddamn swingout as fine as it can possibly be.
The fact that we can do all this in public is also pretty damn good. Dance is a public discourse. It’s an engagement with ideas and social forces and structures. It’s a way of expressing our own ideas. Our own selves. That is why I’m so keen on the idea of diversity in dance, and in not enforcing a particular way of dancing as a woman or a man. We are all the more richer for our differences.
So let me sum up with a nice example. I’m going to talk about Dax & Sarah – Moses Supposes US Open Cabaret 2010 performance:
Which is a recreation of Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor in the ‘Moses Supposes’ number from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain
What do I find so great about this? First, it’s great dancing. I like what I see. It’s historical recreationism to the nth degree. These are two modern day dancers performing choreography inspired by a particular film sequence, wearing costumes inspired by that same sequence, using the sound from that sequence. SQUEE! But unlike the Day At the Races routine, we’re not seeing any dodgy fatsuits. Race is still happening here – these are two white kids performing a routine danced by two white man. Whiteness is race, is ethnicity. I think class is also at work (and a central theme for the original routine, of course). But the gender stuff is what I get most squee about.
I really really like it that Sarah has co-opted the part of a male actor and dancer. So many of the solo jazz routines danced by women around the lindy hop world have them in some sort of sexeh frock, doing teh sexeh ladee dancing. But in this case, Sarah is wearing trousers, a blouse (rather than a shirt), flat shoes, and her hair is tied up. She definitely reads as conventionally female, but not in a spangles-and-sex sort of way. More importantly, she’s dancing virtually the same steps as her male fellow performer. I especially like it that this performance works in complement to her existing ideas about shoes and whatnot. I think it’s particularly subversive that she can do all the gender stuff.
I’m quite keen on this idea of dancing in drag, or of performing gender in this way. I mean, I often think about my own dancing in this sort of way. I make extensive, and thorough, use of historical clips myself. I use them as a source for new steps, for ways of holding my body, for styling, for attitude. But I’m using both the male and female dancers for this. When I’m dancing, I frequently think to myself “I’m Frankie!” or “I’m Al!” or even “I’m Skye!” It’s not that I’m actually imagining I’m these men in particular, or a man in more general terms. I’m very happy with being a woman. And with femininity (just not that boringly conventional heteronormative ladygirl femininity). But sometimes, in those moments when I’m dancing, I can imagine that I’m occupying that space that is awesome dancing and freedom of movement and creativity that I associate with my male heroes and role models. I want to occupy that Al Minns attitude, that Frankie power and excitement, that Skye dancing-squee enthusiasm. It makes me feel confident and happy. I know I’ll never dance like them, nor do I really want to be just like them, but it can be important to me to put on that identity like a costume. So when I’m dancing, I’m wearing that attitude, and it gives me confidence. Also, playing dress up and make believe is bloody good fun.
So when I see Sarah in that clip, I think ‘Yep. That works for me.’ It’s a moment where the dressing up and recreation is super fun and exciting. I don’t have to negotiate dodgy race politics. I can just enjoy the subversion of a woman ‘dancing man’ but owning it in her way. I guess, though, that this is how hegemony and patriarchy work. The smooth fit of class and race seems ‘right’, and anything else is kind of jagged and unsettling. We’re used to seeing these sorts of images of healthy young white male bodies being athletic and creative, ‘speaking’ and articulating a clever commentary on social relationships. Not much is being challenged by the original sequence. Really, the best part is Sarah’s occupying the male character and reworking it to accommodate her own gender.
I think this is why I’m very interested in eccentric dances. I had this sudden moment about a year ago, when I was doing lots of solo work, when I suddenly thought, watching videos of myself “Why am I trying to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘cool’ or otherwise conventionally attractive or ok? These guys aren’t.” You know that moment when you first watch yourself dancing on video and you cringe? Well, I realised that I was trying to get rid of that feeling by conforming to the sorts of ‘cool’ dancing I saw in modern day comps. I gradually realised that it wasn’t really possible for me to look like that. I’m not tall and thin; I’m kind of square with some round parts. I’m not hugely athletic. I have a round belly and lots of jelly all over me. I have big slabs of muscle in my legs and arse, and my arms don’t quite get straight. I’d been thinking of these as problems to overcome. But then I decided that these could become my strengths. No one else is quite my shape, or moves quite my way. I don’t need to please the people watching me – I can make them uncomfortable. Or nervous. Or embarrassed. Or – goddess forbid! – make them laugh.
This is when I started getting serious about using archival footage for finding role models.
- Snake Hips Tucker: in the 1930 film Crazy House. It doesn’t seem possible to do what he does, but watch his hands – how does he contrast their light fluttering with the crazy stuff in his joints? Or the way he makes walking interesting in Love in the Rough in 1930. He was a frightening, aggressive, violent man who could do amazing, mesmerising things on stage that wouldn’t let you look away.
- Al Minns: does more with his face than with his body, but at the same time, his movements are so precise and so carefully planned, they make you watch every second.
- James Barton: in 1929 film After Seben. There’s that moment at 2.08 when he stops to wipe his shoes, where it feels like he’s disrupting the flow of the routine, and doing something silly and inappropriate. How can I use that idea of disrupting narrative ‘flow’? And he’s a white man in blackface: how can I unravel that and make it tenable? Is it even possible?
- And my latest obsession, James Berry in Spirit Moves. I like the way his movements are just so strange, especially compared with Sandra Gibson. In this film, I want to be Berry. I’ve seen sultry woman dancing a million times before. But how often do you get to see strange woman dancing?
There are heaps of other clips to reference, and lots of women dancers to reference as well. I really like eccentric dances, because they’re about finding your own way of using your own body to do your own stuff. I could get really into reproducing the stuff I see in films exactly. And I do. But ultimately, what I’m really trying to do is find my own flavah flave. I want to be utterly unique. I find inspiration in all sorts of dance clips, but I don’t want to be a carbon copy of something from ye olden days.
But this post has gone on long enough. To sum up, I want to say that cultural transmission is such a complicated thing. It’s inflected by all sorts of issues, and it’s just not very interesting or useful to dismiss it all as ‘appropriation’. There are ways of negotiating good stuff, here, and I’m not ready to let it go.
- Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Series in Contemporary Ethnography. Eds. Dan Rose and Paul Stoller. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
- Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Feminist Cultural Studies, the Media and Political Culture. Eds. Mary Ellen Brown and Andrea Press. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
- Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.”
Cultural Critique (Winter 1993 – 94): 33 – 63.
- Desmond, Jane C. ed. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. London: Duke University
- Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.” Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 – 57.
- Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. “African-American Vernacular Dance: Core Culture and Meaning Operatives.” Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (1985): 427-45.
- Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
- Jackson, Jonathan David. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.”
Dance Research Journal 33.2 (2001/2002): 40 – 53.
- Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal.” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses nueva época, número 3. (2002).
I’m really interested in the discussion of official versus community policing of public space in Chris Brown’s article ‘The Occupy Movement and the Battle for Public Space’. One point I took from this was Brown’s juxtaposition of the formal, highly ordered occupation of public space by the police and ‘official’ entities with the informal, collaborative and negotiated management of public space by community groups. I think that both types of management of public space happen in all sorts of communities, and that they’re really just two points on a broad spectrum of behaviours. I want to spend the rest of this post taking this idea and applying it to dance competitions. Competitions which can be at once ‘officially’ managed public spaces and also collaborative or informally managed public spaces. At the same time!
I’ve always been interested in the way dancers regulate the social dance floor (which I’ve always thought of as ‘public space’ or public discourse). One of my favourite topics is derision dance. Or using dance to deride someone (using the dictionary definition “contemptuous ridicule or mockery”). This can be as simple as directing a crude gesture to your opponent, but it is often more complex, involving layers of imitation, impersonation and subtler mockery. This last type is what really fascinates me. I wrote about derision dance and layers of meaning in what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc; I used derision as a tool for understanding blackface in blackfaces and performing identity. again. (again using the idea of layers); and I talked about cake walk as an example of derision in hot and cool.
I keep coming back to the idea of dance as a forum or tool for deriding or subverting authority or an opponent because it’s a contribution to public discourse which doesn’t use words. I get a bit frustrated with work on public discourse which prioritises the written word, as there are all sorts of dodgyarse power dynamics happening there. Not all of us have literacy and linguistic competency on our side; class and race and ethnicity are pretty important factors here.
Of course, I’m not alone in talking about bodies in public space. That’s why I like that Chris Brown article. It describes the way non-verbal occupation of public space is regulated by official and community powers. When I think about dancers regulating the public space of the dance floor, I think about official ‘laws’ or guidelines like a sign forbidding aerials in a particular room for safety or heritage-building reasons. Or a more experienced or authoritative dancer telling an idiot lead to stop tossing follows into the air. But I’m also quite interested in the unspoken, unofficial and less overt management of public space in dance communities. It’s a little too far along the spectrum to ‘official’ to really illustrate my thoughts, but I want to begin with (and probably end with – as I’m off to the beach in a tick) dance competitions.
I’ve just been watching this clip from the studio we use of ‘The Crossover Popping Battle – Finals':
There are all sorts of cool things to say about the way the studio uses Youtube and faceplant, where I found the clip, and which is so central to the studio’s promotional and community development work. But I’m not going to do that here. I want to start with the dancing itself.
… suddenly, I’m realising that this might be beyond me right this second. I want to do a close textual analysis of what is happening on the dance floor. There’s lots to be said about the mise en scene of the film itself as well. I think this type of close analysis of the dance-as-public-text requires a certain about of specialised knowledge. If you can’t read bodies as a dancer, you can’t really understand the power plays. More specifically, if you can’t read popping, you can’t really understand who’s the more proficient dancer, the intertextual and historic references in each movement, the etiquette for this sort of battle type competition. To add a few extra layers of meaning, this is a battle hosted by one particular dance studio, so you’ll see institution-specific action and ideology at work here. Not to mention the fact that these kids are from all across Asia, speaking a number of different languages as well as English. I’m a white Anglo-celtic girl living in Sydney and I only speak English. I’m going to miss most of the more nuanced physical gestures and postural moments. So my analysis is really only a beginning place, and I couldn’t possibly see all the detail at work here, least of all because I’m not into popping.
This is a pretty important point. I can’t see all the regulation and management of this public place – this moment of discourse – at work here. So I’d be bound to make mistakes. But because I am a babby, I’d probably be excused quite a few mistakes. So long as my participation improved. These guys are really friendly and welcoming, and I know I’d be cut a fair bit of slack. But eventually, even the most tolerant teachers and peers lose patience with social ineptitude and rudeness in a public forum.
Interestingly, the dancers at this studio encourage new dancers to enter battles almost from the very beginning. I’ve sat in on a casual battle, and a lot of leeway is granted for new dancers. In contrast, there’s a real sense in Australian lindy hop that only the ‘best’ dancers enter competitions, unless the competitions are for ‘up and comers’ or ‘amateurs’. Of course, definitions of ‘best’ vary between cities, and don’t match up comparatively. And, really, the most successful dancers have a very strong sense of self worth and faith in their own abilities. They really believe they are – if not the best dancers – in with a shot at becoming the best. That’s just how competition works. If you don’t really believe you have a chance, you won’t work hard in preparation, you won’t devote time and effort to the project, and you won’t bring your A-game in the final moment.
So this means that we don’t see lindy hoppers developing performance and competition skills in a relaxed, welcoming and informal setting as very new dancers. I’ve noticed the dancers at Crossover develop a real sense of self-awareness and understanding of lines and visual presentation far earlier than most lindy hoppers. They work with mirrors right from the get-go. They spend a lot more time looking up and making eye contact (particularly in battles). In brief, ‘their movements go right to the end of their finger tips’, whereas a lot of lindy hoppers don’t even really know they have hands.
So, when you go to a battle with these guys, there’s rarely an explanation of the ‘rules’, beyond the very basics. This confused me when I first saw them in action. How was judging decided? How long did dancers have to perform? How did they decide who danced in what order? You’ll find rules for competitions on websites before the event, but mostly you just have to figure them out. And of course you won’t be in the competition if you haven’t at least acquired even that much cultural knowledge.
The same sort of thing happens with lindy hop competitions. Though most of the more popular recent comps have far more implied than stated rules. In fact, there was a conscious movement away from prescriptive rules in the US at some point in the early 2000s (I can’t really remember the details, sorry). Most Australian competitions followed this American trend largely as following a trend (rather than as a critical engagement with existing competition culture) a few years later. The exception is Hellzapoppin’, which was deliberately developed as a lindy hopper-run and regulated competition advertised as having ‘no rules’. Though of course it does have rules, and these are listed quite clearly.
These rules are just a little different to other more prescriptive events like the ASDC and rock n roll or ballroom competitions. The inaugural Western Sydney Swing Dance Competition had quite strict, ballroom/rock r roll type rules, but I found it really difficult to discover much about the competition beyond this flyer. I ended up messaging the organisers on faceplant to find out more, then had a fairly long list of rules emailed to me as a pdf (which you can have a look at here). I found these rules really difficult to understand, in part because I’ve done very little competition, but also because I’m not a part of the rock n roll or ballroom dance scenes, which are far more tightly structured and formally organised than the lindy hop scene. I simply don’t have the language tools or cultural knowledge to navigate this sort of text.
The Crossover competition, though, is far more familiar. Rules for larger battles are often discussed in an informal way on faceplant, but more usually discussed in person. But learning the rules of competitions is more a matter of enculturation. The competitive space is as highly regulated as the WSDC, it’s just that the regulation is managed in a different way.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the past analysing lindy hop competition footage in close detail (‘lindy hop followers bring themSELVES to the dance; lindy hop leaders value this’ is probably the best example of how I approach this). It’s a very common practice for most lindy hoppers, and learning how to read dance (whether in footage or in person) is an ongoing process. Dancers are also on the lookout for different things. Leaders and followers often read a dance clip in quite different ways. I look for gender stuff. Someone else might be looking at shoe types. A DJ might be listening for new songs.
I’m going to get completely off-track here with a reference to a very famous dance clip.
This is a still from the Big Apple scene from Keep Punchin, featuring the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:
I’ve heard (second-hand, unfortunately), that Frankie Manning described this scene as a dance competition. In fact, the MC in the film introduces it as “The Big Apple contest”. Frankie explained that not only were couples competing against each other, but that individual partners were competing against each other. I’m not sure whether I’ve gotten that story right – it does come to be second-hand. But it’s an interesting idea. Competitors are working in pairs, focussing their performance on each other, as well as on those around them.
This is a bit like the Crossover battles (as far as I can tell – I’m not 100% sure about this next bit). In these battles competitors may enter as teams of two, but they dance alone, focussing their attentions on a particular member of the opposing team. There’s lots to say about focussed competition, and about how dancers in these battles turn their aggressive (yet never violent) competition on when they begin dancing, and then off when they move off the floor. I’m particularly fascinated by the way the non-dancing team member stands in a decidedly ‘I’m not dancing’ pose; they turn off their competitive dance energy, often by not making eye contact with their opponents. That’s some pretty basic non-threatening body language right there.
Right, back on-track, now…
It was quite interesting to see the new competition format for the Harlem 2011. Solo Jazz Contest held in Lithuania. It looks a lot more like the Crossover popping battle than other solo jazz comps in the lindy hop scene. How?
Firstly, here are some screenshots from those clips to illustrate my points:
(Harlem 2011, one of the rounds)
(Crossover popping battle, final)
- The three people sitting in the middle at the back are the three judges. We see this in the Crossover battle. They don’t write things down or discuss the competitors in detail, they just point to the dancer they think should win (or cross their arms to indicate indecision). In every other lindy hop competition the judges walk around the floor with clipboards, staring intently at competitors and writing things down before going out to another room to discuss the competition and arrive at a collaborative (or comparative) decision. Sometimes there’s an audience appreciation component. ULHS has a very strong audience appreciation component.
- Competitors can dance as long as they like to the song before ceding the floor to their competitor. This is very unlike most other competitions in the lindy hop scene. The ASDC gives each couple one minute from the beginning of a recorded song to do their thing, followed (or preceded) by an ‘all-skate’ where they share the floor with other dancers. The more organic ‘jam format’ gives dancers a phrase (or two) of music each, and each couple or dancer must enter and leave the floor at the beginning/end of that phrase. Failing to do so is read as a failure in basic musicality. The Crossover format assumes that a dancer will dance for as long as they need to bring their best shit. Failing to cede the floor is perceived as a failure to judge their audience, the tone of the competition, and a display of egotism. This is where my understanding of the format ends – I don’t know how dancers know when they should bow out, or when everyone knows too much is too much. This format was also used by the Harlem 2011 competition, and it’s interesting to watch all the clips and see how competitors, audiences, judges and MC negotiate an understanding of these rules. Collaborative meaning making or what?!
- Audiences cheer and yell out and otherwise engage with competitors, indicating their approval, admiration, disappointment, awe and so on. This participation is often very important for a dancer making a joke, referencing an historic or iconic move or dancer, or engaging in a little derision, mockery or impersonation. Dancers are focussed on their opponents, but they rely on the audience audibly signaling their engagement with the performance. This all means that the best audiences for these sorts of competitions are also dancers.
There’s so much more to say about this. I’d like to go through and carefully analyse what’s going on in the Crossover clip, and to compare it with various lindy hop and solo clips. There are interesting things to say about the placement of DJs in the competitive space. Or how competitors in a pro or invited jack and jill comp sit in a line at the back of the competition space (they are often actually formally judging each other). This demands comparison with the way lindy hop couples line up in order along the back of the competition space waiting to enter the jam, and are far more actively engaged with the dancers currently on display. And of course, I want to talk about the way the competition space is delineated by these lines of competitors, by the audience, by lighting, by the dance floor itself.
All of these things relate to how the physical competition space is regulated and negotiated by the community, and also by official forces. The ultimate authority is the individual or organisation running the competition. Yet one of the greatest delights in watching street dance (or vernacular dance) competitions is waiting for the moments where rules and authority are deliberately contravened, or at least stretched. When judges request a rematch. When competitors physically touch each other (forbidden!) When competitors touch the audience (doubly forbidden!)
I’d also like to talk about how conversation is managed, both formally and informally. There’s lots of lovely stuff written about all-male and all-female conversation and how formal turn taking dominates all-male talk and interrupting and collaborative meaning making (eg women saying ‘oh no!’ and nodding or saying ‘yes’ regularly interrupt but do not disrupt the speaker) characterises informal all-women talk. I think of dance as discourse, and occasionally use this idea of dance as conversation to explore dance as discourse. It’s not a unique idea – dance teachers use this idea all the time. But while I might have begun thinking of dance partnership in particular as conversation with formal turn taking, I’m now a lot more interested in a model of high level partner dancing as more like collaborative, overlapping conversation. And of course, I extend this idea to include jazz music, with its sections of structured unison, its layers of individual, interrupting parts, and its moments of solo improvisation. I probably like New Orleans stuff because it favours layers of improvisation instead of carefully choreographed unison and demarcated solos.
But enough! I must swim!