Category Archives: labour

Another shit-stirrer post about teaching

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why people teach, and what they get out of it (for obvious reasons).

There is this idea in the lindy hop world that we should all sacrifice lots ‘for the community’. As though ‘the community’ was this really huge thing, larger and more important than all of us, and yet somehow not including us at all. I’m not sure where this idea that we should sacrifice our own health and spare time for the sake of other people’s dancing came from. I sometimes think it has to do with the revivalist impetus: that we have to keep lindy hop alive no matter what. Which is problematic for so many reasons. Starting with a) It wasn’t actually dead before busy white people started getting into it in the 1980s; b) If the communities that developed it have moved on to other things, perhaps a vernacular dance has lost its utility, and social dances should be useful and relevant above all else.

This is what I think:

  • communities must be sustainable. Culturally, socially, economically, environmentally… and so on.
  • The people in the community are that community. That includes the teachers and volunteers and event organisers and so on… all the people who are working their bums off to ‘keep the dance alive’. This means that their lives and work have to be sustainable: they have to earn enough money to pay their bills; they can’t ruin their health and relationships and lives with overwork; they have to find joy their work – it cannot be a burden. ie NO MARTYRS.
  • The ‘community’ is not a discrete bubble. All ‘communities’ overlap and interact with other ‘communities’. So the ‘lindy hop community’ is also a part of, or overlapping with, the ‘jazz community’, and the ‘vintage lifestyle’ community, and the ‘live music industry’, and the ‘wider local community’, and the ‘national community’, and so on. We are no better or worse than the people who don’t dance lindy hop. Lindy hop doesn’t make us special; we are already special. And so are the people who don’t dance lindy hop.

I know that a lot of lindy hop teachers I’ve met and worked with in Sydney and Melbourne feel as though the value of their teaching is assessed by the number of students in their class. As though they somehow fail to be good or important or useful teachers if they aren’t funnelling hundreds of new lindy hoppers onto the floor every year. I used to feel this way. But now I don’t.

I think that we all realise that huge classes are not good learning or teaching environments. Students don’t get the time or attention they need from teachers, nor do they develop the social bonds that help make a good community. Their learning and sense of ‘group’ is focussed on the teacher, and often, on the larger school identity. Rather than on the smaller, more important relationships with other people in their class, and on the social dance floor. Further, classes that focus on rote learning, on running through a sequence of steps over and over again until the students have it ‘perfect’ is not great learning.
It’s as though this sort of class deliberately undoes the culture and practice of social dancing. If you are pushing through a rote sequence of steps, no matter what, you cannot stop and listen to your partner, you cannot adjust your dancing to work with your partner and make it work, and you definitely cannot listen to and respond to the music. And that is very sad. It is also the opposite of lindy hop: this is not preserving a vernacular dance.

I see students come out of dance classes unable to ‘start’ dancing on the social dance floor until someone ‘counts them in’ or helps them ‘find one’. As though there was this rule that we HAVE to start dancing ‘on one’, or that steps have to perfectly align with an 8 or 6 count sequence. More importantly, those same students haven’t learnt how to make a real connection with a dance partner, because their attention in class is so focussed on the teachers; they’ve never learnt that it’s ok to just bop about on the spot with a new friend, chatting, and enjoying the music. They feel that they have to execute that series of prescribed moves perfectly if they are to be ‘good dancers’. And of course, those prescribed moves are only available (for a price) from a dance class.

This isn’t the students’ fault. Or even the teachers’, really. It’s the fault of a pervasive ideology of ‘learning through memorisation’, and a push to acquire huge class numbers as an indicator of ‘success’ – primarily financial. It’s also accepted that the retention rate of any class will be low – that people will find lindy hop really hard in their first class, and that they won’t ever come back. And, to be blunt (as though I was ever anything else), I’d be scared off by a huge class focussed on rote-learning a series of strictly ‘perfect’ steps.

The saddest thing about all this, is that this is not what lindy hop – or jazz – is all about. It makes me sad that teachers feel they have to push their classes to become bigger and more ‘successful’, instead of taking time to enjoy the time they spend with students in class. They are so intent on acquiring the ‘sexiest’, most ‘sellable’ steps from the latest round of competition videos, that they forget that dancing is actually lots of fun, particularly when the steps are simple and the focus is on the music and your partner.

I’ve recently shifted my own focus – in a very determined way – to classes which are all about social dancing. That means great music. That means learning to work with a partner – and not just for a 30 second rotation in class, but for a whole song in class. I don’t teach fixed patterns of steps; I teach a pattern, and then build on it, encouraging the students to figure out their own combinations. With Marie and Lennart’s example in mind, after the first few partner rotations in class, I don’t ‘count students in’ any more. I let them find their own way into the music. To me, these are the real skills social dancers – lindy hoppers – need. Nobody needs that latest trick that Famous Dancer X pulled out in a comp. A competition is not social dancing; the skills are quite different.

The nicest part of this shift in focus is that I find teaching so much more satisfying, and so much less anxiety-making.

So why am I writing this post now? It’s because this story about Stefan Grimm has been making the rounds in my academic network. I used to work in academia, but gave it up because it just wasn’t any fun. The students were neglected by shitty class environments, the research wasn’t fun any more because it was squeezed into restrictive grant-getting processes.

Reading this piece about universities as anxiety machines, I was struck by the similarities between the ‘dance class industry’ and universities. And not just because they’re both centred on pedagogy (or are they? What university still prioritises learning – whether through research or teaching?) The discussion about unpaid labour (normalised by the idea that ‘that’s what you do to get ahead’), sounds a lot like the exhaustion and exploitation in the lindy hop world justified by ‘doing it for the community’. The

…normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

…sounds a lot like lindy hop today.
Get bigger classes. Where are you on the leader board? Have you hunted down the latest marketable step or move from the latest round of competition videos on Youtube? Did you go to that workshop and ‘collect’ moves?

And for ‘professional’ lindy hoppers (as though we aren’t professional unless we are traveling the world every weekend), the pressure is far higher. Not teaching on a repetitive injury? Not working hard enough. Not disguising disordered eating as ‘eating healthy’, ‘the paleo lifestyle’, or, most ironic of all, ‘keeping well’? Not truly committed to dance. Haven’t taken up a dozen ‘strength and maintenance’ exercise regimes on top of your lindy hop training? Just aren’t trying hard enough.

…this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. …My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value…

(all these quotes are from ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’)

This is, of course, the bottom line. Because teachers (especially the highest profile ones) don’t spend quality time with anyone other than other teachers for extended periods of time, this stuff is all normalised. And they aren’t allowed the time and quiet to question the working conditions of their ‘jobs’. They are expected to work and work and work ‘for the community’. And if they do ask event organisers for things like, oh, a quiet room with a door that closes and a real bed to sleep, there is this niggling perception of them as ‘difficult’.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. Beyond arguing that we should shift our focus to more socially sustainable practices. And we should question the ‘for the community’ ethos that justifies socially and physically unsustainable work practices. Also, we should teach lindy hop like a vernacular dance, not like you’re going to be sitting an SAT test.

Uses of history: a revivalist mythology

An issue has come up over on Wandering and Pondering. I did write a comment there, but it got too long. The post there is responding to a post on Authentic Jazz Dance by Harri Heinila, which has managed to shit off an awful lot of people. I don’t have a whole lot to say about that particular post of Harri’s, mostly because I find the written expression so clunky it obscures his point. I just can’t figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. So I don’t really want to engage with it one way or another. But I do have some things to say (of course I do).

Here is the huge comment I deleted from the Wandering and Pondering page:

If I was marking this essay [Harri’s blog post], I’d give the comments: “There are some problems with your written expression, which at times confuse your argument” and “I would recommend closer critical engagement with your own approach to ideas about dance, power, the uses of language and ideology in dance.”

There are some really confusing bits of writing, that I think perhaps might be a product of having English as a second language? And I also suspect that some of the points of conflict (eg the use of the word ‘vernacular’) might be a product of confusion about language use, rather than a real disagreement. From my perspective, I find the use of historical methods problematic: as a feminist cultural media studies person, I want more engagement with ideology, and less emphasis on ‘sources’ and ‘facts’. But then, I’m not a historian.

Having said that, I’ve noticed that the further we get from Frankie the man (ie the more time passes after he passed away), the less critical engagement with his life and work we have, and a more uncritical, adulatory tone we take in describing him and his work. This actually came up in the Frankie Stream discussion session at Herrang, where one of the newer dancers actually said something like (and I paraphrase) “You [the teachers and everyone] say many good things about Frankie, but was he this perfect? What were his faults?”

It was interesting to see that none of the teachers or participants were willing to discuss Frankie’s faults as a dancer or person. You can understand why – we are reluctant to speak ill of the dead, and particularly reluctant to disrespect someone so important to the modern lindy hop scene, who was also a dear friend and respected mentor and teacher. But I think the questioner (and I) were left wondering if perhaps we are losing a wholer picture of the man by taking such an adulatory tone.

Similarly, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we take an uncritical approach to the ‘lindy hop revival’ narrative: we should be asking questions like “Who benefits from this revival?” and “What are our limits when it comes to ‘growing the scene’?”

….at any rate, I think that one of the things that Harri makes (and which I think is lost in his writing style), is that the history we tell of the ‘dying out’ and ‘revival’ of lindy hop tends to lack context, critical engagement, and complexity. It’s easy to tell the story like this:
“Jazz stopped being popular, so people stopped lindy hopping. Then in the 1980s some people (mostly white, mostly European, but also American) found the old time dancers and then they revived it.”
This story is very popular for a number of reasons, and I think that Harri approaches a convincing point when he suggests that money is at the heart of this. I don’t think money is actually the reason these stories dominate (though, contrary to public mythology, you can actually make a living from lindy hop, most of us actually don’t). I think that the ‘myth of the rediscovered lindy hop’ actually reinforces and cements existing power structures in modern day lindy hop. And we should be very sceptical of these.

To be blunt, I think that this story is inaccurate: lindy hop did not ‘die out’. At the very least, it changed form a bit (because it was a vernacular dance), and it moved out of the public eye. I haven’t done enough research on this stuff, so I can’t comment on who was doing what dancing where, or what its standard was, or whether it counted as ‘lindy hop’.

I’m actually increasingly suspicious of the mantra that we should ‘grow the scene’ or convert more people to lindy hop at the cost of all else. There is a loud discourse in lindy hop that we should sacrifice all (income, time, relationships, health) to bring more people to lindy hop – to continue the revivalist project. I have an intense dislike of this martyred approach to running events, teaching, or working in the lindy hop scene. It normalises exploitation, it encourages working for free, rather than economic sustainability, and we see the same sorts of people being exploited, while the same sorts of people benefit from this exploitation. This system (and ideology) of ‘sacrifice’ ultimately attributes power and status to the people who take organisational roles in this project.

[A brief interjection: when I run events I am 100% keen on NOT exploiting anyone. I am STRICT about good working conditions, about breaks, about reasonable workloads, about people being paid, about punters paying for things. This shit is part of the music and entertainment industry, not some bloody religious movement. So nobody gets screwed over if I can help it, and I have NO PATIENCE with martyrs.]

If we were to realise that lindy hop didn’t actually die out, and if we were to realise that the world won’t actually explode without lindy hop, then all that revivalist sacrifice and work will be for nothing, and all that power and status will just trickle away. So there are bodies and people with vested interests in maintaining an uncritical support of a revivalist project, and revivalist mythology.

Me, I think that we’d do just fine without lindy hop. I’d be pretty darn sad, but life would go on. I think there are some really big problems with the way power and status work in our various communities, and I think that Harri is quite brave for raising the issue. I do not, however, agree with the core of his arguments, nor do I like his approach.

I think that we should be more critical of adulatory and ‘sacrifice’ narratives about the revival (and Frankie), but we should also be respectful of elders, respectful of each other, and supportive of projects which are, at their heart, about a philosophy of dance which encourages tolerance, mutual respect, peace, and harmony.

I think that one thing the modern day ‘revivalist’ project has brought us (largely through Frankie Manning’s personal example) is an ideology of dance which prioritises: interpersonal connection and respect (‘you are in love with this person for three minutes’); creativity and self-expression, from all dancers (the swing out has built-in improvisation time, and solo dance is a key part of lindy hop); and an open, welcoming social dancing culture, where anyone is welcome, and where peace and goodwill are valued.

At the same time, though, I like to remember that lindy hop itself has a built-in capacity for critical engagement, for resistance, and political commentary. Imitation, impersonation, competition, ‘step stealing’, and so on are all elements of lindy hop that make it a great vehicle for ideological and political resistance. And if we forget that – if we forget the importance of constructive criticism – then we’re forgetting the most powerful part of lindy hop.

[Another addd comment: Yes, the Savoy was a wonderful place for overcoming segregation. But you’re fooling yourself if you think that racial tensions, issues of power and privilege and sexism and class weren’t a part of that community space as well. We should be deeply, deeply suspicious of bullshit claims that lindy hop dissolves all differences. Because the corollary to that point is that if you are speaking up about wrong doing or about racism or sexism or bullshit in the scene, that idyllic view of the past makes you a trouble maker.
Relatedly, a Swedish friend noted in Herrang that the idea that Herrang is this wonderful, hedonistic place where everyone is happy and wonderful and joined by a love of dance is actually a problem. If Herrang is this wonderful a place, what do you do if something bad actually happens to you? Where do you go if you are assaulted or threatened or bullied? And you’re fooling yourself if you think that these things don’t go on.
When we insist on this idealised idea of lindy hop, we ignore the difficult stuff, and we make it impossible for people to raise challenging issues. Yes, this is a very happy dance. But we are still humans, and we can do pretty awful things to each other. So we should be actively vigilant and critically engaged, not just telling each other to shoosh up and be happy.]

Herräng report: part 1

Well, it’s 6.30am, and I’ve been awake since 5. My sleep cycle is well and truly borked. Curse you, jet lag. Why is that staying awake while flying around the world in a plane is more disruptive than staying awake dancing, eating, laughing, and talking in irregular patterns over several weeks?

I’m back from two weeks in Herräng (weeks 2 and 3), and a bit of time in Stockholm, and I’m taking a few days before I go back to work. It’d been ten years since I’d been to Herräng, and things had changed a bit. For one, things were more organised, which was a relief. The scale had also leapt: more places to eat, more people, more dance floors, more things to do. I was there to dance and DJ this time, rather than to ‘research’, so I approached each day in a different way.

I have lots of things to talk about, but I can’t quite keep hold of my thoughts, so I’m not sure how coherent this will be. Things I’d like to talk about, in no particular order:

  • the ‘how to DJ session’ in the library in week 3;
  • the way the insistence that Herräng is about lindy hop, and lindy hop is ‘such a happy dance’ makes it difficult to talk about problems or serious issues within the dance and event;
  • the somewhat disturbingly uncritical ‘spread the dance/grow the community’ discourse that dominates and justifies most activities (including a particular brand of cultural imperialism);
  • gender politics in the DJing and dancing culture of the camp (and the way critical engagement with this is forestalled by the ‘let’s just have a nice time/hedonism is us’ vibe);
  • the sheer joy and wonder of the Frankie Track in week 2;
  • teaching practice, and the balance between content and practice;
  • the effects of a coherent teaching approach in the Frankie Track versus the usual overall relationship between individual workshops at a dance weekend. I will say this: the Frankie Track was amazeballs because all the classes were linked by a coherent theme and concept: teaching Frankie Manning’s content, teaching classes in the way he taught classes, emphasising his priorities (MUSIC! PARTNERSHIP! SIMPLICITY! RHYTHM!), drawing on the old timers’ approach to learning dance generally…. and MORE;
  • the challenges and excitement of the beginners’ half week of tap in week 3;
  • the ebb and flow of energy and people and vibe over the course of a week;
  • economic factors and the effect of the Herräng Dance Camp’s decades of involvement in this small town’s economy and society;
  • the Swing Kids, Swing Teens and the way having children in the camp in week 2 provided social balance to the ‘hedonism’ of the camp, which was largely lost by the end of week 3;
  • hierarchies, power, and privilege in the camp;
  • the wheeling and dealing and networking and lobbying for work behind the scenes, from teachers, DJs, and organisers;
  • labour, work, gender, and knowledge in the Herräng economy;
  • mindfulness, computer literacy and online culture in camp (and how this had changed in the ten years since my last visit);
  • mindfulness, work, obsessive personalities, and the luxury of time in tap dance;
  • the argument that all DJs should learn to play a musical instrument if they want to be ‘good DJs’ (and the associated issues of power, time, labour, gender, and power);
  • sex, sexualisation, gender, and scoring a root;
  • the significance of Herräng’s place in Europe, and how this affected people’s attitudes to same-sex sex and gender. And how these progressive attitudes were ultimately subsumed or overshadowed by the overwhelming heteronormativity of modern lindy hop;
  • food, nutrition, body image, and the importance of the shared table at Herräng: my favourite part;
  • defining ‘swing’ music, and Herräng’s emphasis on classic swing era big band jazz, and how this affected DJing styles and set content, and dancers’ responses to music. Relatedly, the tension between modern day dancers’ learning to play music, the accessibility of small NOLA or hot combo style jazz versus the inaccessability of big band jazz for new musicians (ie dancers tend to play in small, hot combos which aren’t what Herräng values, but Herräng does value live music and independent creative projects very highly…. the tension needs a bit of discussion, I think);

As you can see, I have approximately one million things to write and talk about after my time in Herräng. One looming largest in my brains is DJing, as I was a staff DJ in week 2, and one of only 4 women out of 16 staff DJs in the 5 week camp. There were a number of volunteer DJs in the two weeks I was there, but not a whole bunch of them. A higher proportion of them were women than men.
I have a few things to say about how gender, networks of association and labour, and the professional skills required of DJs (primary of which is networking, in this case) work in Herräng, but I don’t really have the brains to articulate them properly here. In sum, though, I was very surprised by how few women DJs there were, after the last couple of years in Australia where women far outnumber men in the higher, most experienced ranks of lindy hop DJs. To the point where for the last MLX I had only one male DJ on the DJ team.

My approach to hiring DJs for events is to look for the most capable, most professional, most skilled, most useful and talented DJs, regardless of gender. They need to be not too over-exposed, and yet still have a degree of popularity with dancers (ie, be ‘in demand’). They might not be quite where they should be, in terms of experience or expanse of music collection, but I’m willing to invest in someone with promise and a good, strong work ethic.
I think that the reason I end up with more women than men, is that I actively seek out DJs, rather than waiting for them to approach me, and I put quite a bit of work into long term development for DJs. My own gender is probably significant too, though I’m often described as ‘intimidating’ by other women. But I’m very yolo about that: life is too short to worry about whether you intimidate other people. And I know other DJs and DJ organisers who are both male and very approachable.

I find that male DJs are more willing to put their hands up for gigs (to approach me for gigs) than women, and that women DJs are more critical of their own DJing, needing more encouragement, and also looking for more critical feedback on their DJing. The latter makes most women much better DJs (because they are open to improving, and open to communicating about their own DJing, and less defensive about their DJing), the former makes women less excellent at developing professional networks and ‘taking risks’ by applying for jobs they might not be ready for. They tend to play it too safe, and be more intimidated by hierarchies. There are male and female exceptions to these things, but very few. Very, very few.

My approach involves long term planning and development, including encouraging newer DJs, providing references and recommendations for new DJs with smaller events (so they can get the experience I need for the bigger events I work for), and keeping my local scene networks healthy – talking to people in different scenes to keep my finger on which DJs are looking and sounding good, and good to work with.
I’m also very keen on providing working conditions which make DJing more accessible for people: friendlier, safer, healthier, clearer (guidelines, etc), equitable pay, an open DJ recruitment process (so people know who to contact and how if they want to DJ, rather than using a quiet system of personal networks), and I am quite aggressive about getting feedback on my own work, and on the DJs’ experiences, so I can keep improving things. I think this transparency is the most important part of encouraging diversity in the DJing team: I am open about my ideas, process, and thinking.

Dargoff was the DJ coordinator for Herräng, and he was just a joy to work with. I don’t know his policies or approach to booking DJs for Herräng, so I can’t comment on them here, but I couldn’t find fault with his work. There are, however, broader systemic issues which make it harder for women to get into these higher profile DJing gigs which require active, fairly aggressive strategies from organisers to overcome. I simply don’t know enough about how Herräng works to be able to comment on this, though. And I don’t even know who organised the DJs in previous years. But I do have some ideas about international DJing culture, and most particularly DJing networks and interpersonal and professional associations which might be useful in this discussion. Again, my lack of experience here makes me reluctant to comment more. I have some ideas, but I just don’t think I know enough to start speculating.

So, when it comes to my experiences DJing at Herräng, I give it a big thumbs up, and I give all my fellow DJs, Dargoff, the huge sound crew, and the event organisers a big huzzah. It was a really great experience, and while challenging in some moments (looong sets are loooong), I would absolutely leap at a chance to do it again. I feel privileged and honoured to be a staff DJ at an event I admire so much, and I learnt SO MUCH about DJing over the two weeks I was there. I also made some new and good friends, and realised I have a lot to learn about the international DJing scene.

I also realised Australia is really isolated from the rest of the lindy hop world. This makes it harder for DJs to crack the higher echelons of DJing, but it has also had effects on our approach to labour and pay and professionalism. Overall, though, I’d say that Australia has quite a few DJs who are not only as good as, but better than some of the DJs I heard in Herräng, and that our lindy hop scene as a whole is something to be proud of. We aren’t a cultural backwater, we’re just a really distant tributary.

DJing is not politically neutral

Lots of DJs talk a lot about mac and great their products are. I use mac products. I’m not in love with them the way many mac users are, but I certainly enjoy using them more than the Microsoft products I’ve used, and I’ve not explored Linux or other options. But how should I feel about apple now that I’ve listened to Mike Daisey’s story about factories in manufacturing China? This This American Life story explores the issue in detail, doing more than shouting about awful working conditions in sweatshops to explore why western communities feel ok about buying products from and supporting companies which use sweat shops.

I think this is an interesting topic for DJs. We tend to think of ourselves as workmanlike people, just playing the music, or doing our art for the sake of the dancers, who’re doing their art. But if the tools we use are created with the fairly horrific exploitation of others, is it really art? Can we really justify what we’re doing as being in any way a good thing?

I’m not sure what to think or how to act. Living in the global north (ie in a developed, wealthy country), being a part of demograph is which is empowered by the exploitation of others, I think that the first thing I have to do is recognise my own privilege. How is my life made easier by the difficulties of others? My own privilege comes from the disadvantaging of other people. It’s not a neutral thing, the happy happenstance of my own or my parents’ or my grandparents’ hard work and good fortune. I live this life because other people cannot.

[edit 16/3/12: apparently Daisey fabricated much of his story. I don’t think this negates the original point (that factories making electronic goods for affluent consumers exploit their workers), but the details are not as Daisey would suggest.]

[edit 18/3/12: another interesting discussion of the Daisey issue as theatre/performance and suspension of belief]