on bodily autonomy and abortion

I’ve seen this image being circulated a bit on facebook this week.

[Text reads:]
“My body, my choice” only makes sense when someone else’s life isn’t at stake.”
reply:
Fun fact: If my younger sister was in a car accident and desperately needed a blood transfusion to live, and I was the only person on Earth who could donate blood to save her, and even though donating blood is a relatively easy, safe, and quick procedure, no one can force me to give blood. Yes, even to save the life of a fully grown person, it would be ILLEGAL to FORCE me to donate blood if I didn’t want to.
See, we have this concept called ‘bodily autonomy’. It’s this…cultural notion that a person’s control over their own body is above all important and must not be infringed upon.
Like, we can’t even take LIFE SAVING organs from CORPSES unless the person whose corpse it is gave consent before their death. Even corpses get bodily autonomy.
To tell people that they MUST sacrifice their bodily autonomy for months against their will in an incredibly expensive, invasive, difficult process to save what YOU view as another human life (a debatable claim in the early stages of pregnancy when the VAST majority of abortions are performed) is desperately unethical. You can’t even ask people to sacrifice bodily autonomy to give up organs they aren’t using anymore after they have died.
You’re asking people who can become pregnant to accept less autonomy than we grant to dead bodies.

[/]

I have a few problems with this chunk of text.
The first is that it’s based on a false premise: that ‘we’ all have the same bodily rights, and that these rights are applied to us equally. I’m going to assume that the author was writing in, and about the US. And I want to state, very clearly, that even beyond the world of childbirth and reproductive medicine, we do not all have the same bodily autonomy. Women of colour, people of colour, first nations people, women, children, gay men living with AIDS… basically everyone other than straight, white, wealthy men have their right to bodily autonomy curtailed by the law, by the state, by medical institutions.
The history of the US is based upon slavery, the clear legal fact that some people can be owned by other people. First nations people were not (are not?) considered people at all by invading colonisers. People of colour are more likely to be incarcerated. Women’s accounts of their own physical pain or illness are less likely to be taken seriously by doctors than men’s accounts. Children are legally not capable of bodily autonomy.
..and so on.

We cannot talk about abortion without also talking about social context. Women and girls are not considered capable human adults or citizens in the way that white men are. We are not considered capable of making sensible, logical decisions. About anything. Let alone our bodies.

I feel that a debate about abortion is a misdirect.
Access to free, safe contraception and good sex education are the demonstrably better way to reduce abortion rates. And incidentally increase women and girls’ autonomy and social power.
By focussing on abortion, rather than sexual health, the discussion is framed as one of individualism, rather than collective responsibility. If we focus on women’s choices, we can avoid a discussion about the state’s role in health care. If we suggest that women’s bodies and their choices are the problem, the we don’t have to talk about the importance of the welfare state in caring for children. Because there, of course, we are reminded that women were once girls, and girls’ education and bodily autonomy is the real issue here.

The abortion debate is about legislating women’s bodies, but more importantly, it’s also about restricting women and girls’ knowledge of their own bodies. I want to expand from this to tie contraceptive rights to access to education generally in a more direct way.
We know that access to education – going to school – generally reduces birth rates (ie girls are less likely to have babies, and fewer babies). For a range of reasons including (but expanding far beyond) knowledge and tools for preventing pregnancy.

The thing I’m often struck by in this sort of debate is the implication that the only reason women and girls have lots of babies is that they don’t know how to stop themselves getting pregnant. Or that they don’t know penetrative vaginal sex with a man leads to pregnancy.

But we know that choosing when and how to have a baby is about more than knowing how to stop sperms get into eggs. It’s also about having a range of choices and options for employment, education, community participation, etc etc etc.
Good education isn’t just about ‘not getting pregnant’ it’s about being able to choose when and how we do have children.

An educated girl is a mighty person. She knows how to access all sorts of resources. She’s not confined to a domestic space and domestic isolation. She’s a _citizen_. This is far more frightening for fundamentalist christians and other patriarchal institutions.
As an addendum, I’ll also note that good sex ed isn’t just about how not to get pregnant or STDs. As that story about the young Swedish men who intervened in a rape in America shows, good sex ed also teaches men and boys about how to communicate with and empathise with their partners’ needs and desires. I think that this is the other thing that terrifies the patriarchy: that men and boys might begin to think of us as humans.

Safety and dance: the limits of the law

The laws that the state and nation have in place to dictate how we touch each other may not be good laws.
eg in NSW, Australia, the legal system does not adequately protect us from sexual assault and harassment. The laws are inadequate, the legal system (from police to courts) do not prevent or protect us, and the consequences of laws do not punish or educate offenders.

So I don’t think the laws are enough. I believe that our laws disadvantage marginalised peeps: women, children, girls, trans folk, queers, poc… anyone who’s not a straight white middle aged man with money.
Just saying ‘follow the laws’ is obviously not enough.

Who is responsible for enforcing safe spaces?

With regards to ‘types of physical spaces’ and who is responsible for them… Let’s ask ourselves: who has the power here?

I feel, personally, that if I know a person has assaulted or harassed someone, that I don’t want them at my event, and I don’t want to be at an event they’re at.
Because they are unsafe.
Because they are putting my friends at risk.
Because I am at risk.
So even if they’ve committed an offence in a space I’m not ‘responsible’ for, then I will still take action.

Further, we are all responsible for each other. When we start saying “Oh, this isn’t my event, I’m just here as a guest, I don’t want to do anything about that man I can see groping each of his partners,” we are abrogating our responsibilities to each other as humans, as friends, as a community. We are also perpetuating a patriarchal system where the most powerful people at the top of that hierarchical pyramid of power do all the acting, and the people at the bottom are acted upon. Where the white straight middle aged men at the top do all the decision making and acting, and all the women, people of colour, queers, young people, old people, poor people are acted upon.

I’m actually at the point in my work on this issue in dance where I think that we need to move away from top-down solutions, and on to a flatter, peer-centred solution.

In this setting, yes ALL men are responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault. Which means that they not only police their own behaviour, they also keep an eye on their male mates, and step in to say “Hey, that’s not cool” when they see them do dodgy stuff. Whether they’re a teacher, DJ, organiser, keen social dancer or bar fly. All men have a responsibility for each other, and for the rest of us.

Similarly (and more powerfully), people who are positioned as ‘powerless’ or without responsibility in dance spaces (eg young women, social dancers, beginner students, teenagers, etc etc ) should be encouraged to find ways they can take care of their friends.
Together, we are mighty.

I’d like to get more active on a ‘peer program’ like the ACON Rovers (https://pivotpoint.org.au/why-i-love-the-acon-rovers/).

Or to simply teach students in class to:

  1. Trust their instincts. If it feels wrong, then it is wrong. If it feels bad, then it is bad.
  2. Practice saying NO and STOP. ‘No thank you’ to dance invites, ‘Stop’ mid-dance, and to step in and tell someone “STOP” if they see them making someone else uncomfortable.
  3. Experiment with how they touch and are touched in class to develop a spectrum of touch, and to get to know what ‘good touch’ feels like and ‘not good’ touch feels like. And to understand that these aren’t fixed states, and can vary with each partner. eg I love to hold my good friends very close, but I can’t bear to have someone unpleasant touch my hand.

Once they have these tools, these students will then go out and interact with other people, teaching them through example about how to touch, and how to be ok with people saying no to dance invites, or asking them to change how they touch people.

More than a Code of Conduct

I have some feels about this topic, largely based on my experiences writing and thinking about sexual assault and harassment, and on my experiences as an event and school manager, dance teacher, and DJ. But mostly as a consumer and attendee: someone who’s tried to get help at events.

With specific regards to a code of conduct:
A CoC is just one part of a range of strategies for responding to and preventing sexual assault and harassment (and other dangerous and/or illegal anti-social behaviours). It’s important to think about the _purpose_ of a CoC. This is one for my current event, Jazz BANG 2-5 May 2019. I’ve just seen an error in there where I’ve clearly fucked up the html, so I’ll fix that. Lesson there: the first draft of a CoC is never the best. This is about the.. tenth? draft of mine. And It’s definitely not perfect.

What should a CoC say? I think of it as:

  1. a statement of the organisation/host’s values;
  2. a public list of ‘rules’ or a statement about how this event abides by laws regarding anti-social/dangerous behaviour.

Who is the intended audience for a CoC?

  1. The staff and organisers of the event/space are the first audience: this document should remind them of the things they value and hold dear. It should be a positive rallying call: “We believe people have a right to safety. We believe that lindy hop today should honour its black roots. etc etc”
  2. A CoC addresses contractors and casual staff: visiting teachers, one-off volunteers, musicians in visiting bands, etc. It tells them what this space values, and the general attitudes about safety and mutual respect. This suggests to marginalised peeps that they can be safe here, and ask for help, but it also says to potential (or existing) offenders that their behaviour will not be tolerated (so hopefully it works as a deterrent).
  3. A CoC addresses punters/customers, students, guests and attendees. People who pay to be there. It is a public statement of values, an invitation, and a welcome for people. It’s also a warning to offenders: don’t do that here, because we will act on it.

More broadly, a CoC can also work as a smoke screen, or token gesture. eg I know offenders who’ve publicly declared that they have and support a CoC, with the intent that this action would then absolve them of future offences: ‘I can’t be an offender, I have a CoC and I support safe spaces’.

Structurally, a CoC is useful if it has:

  • a statement of intent or value statement (what we value, who we are, what we believe in)
  • a code of conduct (what we will not tolerate)
  • a specific sexual harassment policy that outlines what the local laws define as sexual assault and harassment, and then how this manifests in a dance context
    -> a reminder that businesses (eg in NSW, Australia) have a legal obligation to work to protect employees and customers from sexual harassment and assault
  • the very first thing a CoC needs is a helpline: how to get help in a hurry (phone number, email, person for f2f)
  • then a description of the process (what happens) after reporting
  • and a description of the consequences for offenders.

Articulate the ‘unspoken rules’
I think it’s essential to have a CoC and to never rely on ‘common sense’, because the lindy hop world is characterised by travel and travellers: we are from different cultures and countries, we speak different languages, and our countries/regions have different laws. So there is no _common_ sense, just a lot of different types of sense that regularly contradict each other.

I’ve found this idea of ‘unspoken rules’ needs to be interrogated when we’re doing this work. eg I’ve found that women reporting offenders may say “He made me feel gross.” Which is a legitimate comment. But then, if we want to tell men not to ‘be gross’, we need to know exactly what it is that ‘felt gross’. So it’s important to encourage women (and men and everyone else) to articulate what it was that ‘felt gross’. For example, ‘feel gross’ might include:

  • standing a bit too close than is comfortable
  • maintaining eye contact too long, or ‘following her with his eyes’ wherever she was in the room
  • touching her frequently and in many ways from the very first meeting
  • asking her to dance repeatedly
  • buying her drinks

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with these actions. But it’s the combination of actions, and the duration or number of these actions that makes someone ‘feel gross’. Looking at this pattern, I’d say that this man is dominating a woman’s time and physical and social space. If he’s continually speaking to her, asking her questions, etc etc, he’s also isolating her from other people: he’s dominating her time and space. If this is happening to a brand new very young woman dancer by an older man, then we would hear alarm bells.

But all these ‘feel gross’ in more ways in some cultures than in others. And we often know the difference between someone who is accidentally inappropriate and someone who is deliberately inappropriate or carelessly inappropriate.

So if our CoC is meant to be useful, we need to have specific examples of what’s not ok. eg, a ‘How does this relate to dancing’ section.
After you’ve put a lot of research and work into this, you need to think about how you deliver this information. I feel a multimodal approach is best:

  • a digital version on the website
  • a paper version on a page at a dance
  • an abbreviated, visual or comic version online, on a poster at events, on flyers/postcards or other take-home paper media
  • short spoken comments and intros in classes and at parties.

From here, though, you realise quite quickly that a CoC means nothing if you don’t also have a range of other tools in place. You need a) response strategies, b) prevention strategies, c) training and support for staff, d) legal advice for drafting documents and enforcing rules.

Responding to incidents:

  • what is your response strategy if someone does make a response? Are you staff trained in this? Are their responses consistent?
  • do you have a report making process to record the incident?
  • if you do eject someone from an event, how long are they ‘banned’? How do you tell staff that someone is banned? What do they do if the banned person turns up at events – when do they call the police?
  • what is the actual step-by-step process of ejecting someone from an event? Who does it? When? How?
  • if you ‘warn’ someone, what are the consequences if they repeat offend?

And so on and so on.
I’m personally very not ok with approaches that focus exclusively on responding to incidents, and that use a top-down hierarchy to enforce consequences. If we just have a boss ‘telling people off’ and banning people to ‘protect women’, then we are just maintaining the patriarchal status quo. We’re not actually changing culture.
I believe that we need to dismantle this. So we need to talk about _prevention_. And that’s where things get complicated.
Threats of consequences for offenders do not work as dissuasion. If it did, then the existing laws would be adequate.

How do we change the current lindy hop culture?
We need to look at class culture and the way teachers speak to each other, students interact, etc etc.
….and lots of other stuff.

A lot of white people will be uncomfortable.

Nathan Sentance’s piece Diversity means Disruption (November 28, 2018) is important. It addresses the experiences of people of colour (specifically first nations people) within arts and information institutions – libraries, museums, galleries. My own background is in universities and libraries, with my information management postgrad work focussing on the management of first nations’ collections and access to collections.

In this piece Sentance makes it clear that diversity in itself is not useful. Just having people of colour on the team does not provoke institutional change. Representation is not enough; we need structural, institutional change to disrupt the flow of power and privilege.

In this post I’ve taken some lines from Sentance’s article (in green italics), and I’ve responded to them with specific reference to the lindy hop and swing dance world.

Why a diverse teaching line up will change the culture of lindy hop. And a lot of white people will find that uncomfortable.

Or

Having black women teach at your event is radical.

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Why hire people of colour to teach at your dance event within your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more?

Why don’t dance events and dance classes challenge white, middle class modes of learning and learning spaces more?

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is

As a result of the invisibility of whiteness within lindy hop, diversity initiatives are often about just hiring black teachers at big events, without critically examining the way the classes and performances at these events construct a white ‘norm’ that reinforces the mainstream.

Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination”

White lindy hoppers ask ‘why aren’t there any black dancers in my local lindy hop scene?

I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement.

Black dancers get tired of being the only person of colour, asked to ‘give [themselves, their time, their energy] a talk about black dance and black culture’ to white audiences, to give, to work, to be visible, to represent blackness. Tokenism is tiring. Tiring.

1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change.

….[white people] need to understand that [their] discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability.

It is difficult to be told you are racist, when you are pretty sure you aren’t. It’s difficult to be criticised, as a dancer, as a person, by someone you feel you are including as a charitable act of ‘diversity’.

Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.

If you feel attacked, perhaps it is only that you are being disagreed with?

3. Support us.
…Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.

Being a black teacher at a majority white events means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.

Your extensive planning and carefully structured workshop weekend might seem very good and progressive to you. But it might be alienating, discomforting, and marginalising for people of colour. You might feel your black guests are ‘helping white people learn’, but they may feel set up as a ‘great black hope’ on an inaccessible stage. When what they might prefer is to spend time with other dancers as a new friend, as a peer, and to teach using other models.

If all you’ve changed in your program is the colour of the skin of the people presenting, then you haven’t changed anywhere near enough.

Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.

Support should include providing black teachers and performers with black only spaces. …and the time and resources to connect with other black teachers and performers.
Hire more than one black person at a time.
Give black women time with other black women; ‘black girl talk’ is important.
Hire black dancers from different styles, black singers and musicians, black artists and writers, and give them time to talk and make friends.

4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us

Dance teachers at events are ‘on’ all the time they are in front of other people. Black dancers are black all the time. Their experiences of race shape their whole lives.
Black dancers often consider themselves part of a bigger black community, to whom they owe loyalty and responsibilities. They don’t owe you a complete and full history of everything black about lindy hop. Some things are private, and some things should remain secret. They don’t owe you all their time and energy to ‘help white people learn’. They have and need time in their own communities and families.

A useful analogy:
The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces*.
Some spaces need to remain black spaces, where white people cannot go.
Some dance history and dance knowledge needs to remain black culture; white people aren’t owed all of black dance.

This is what it means to decolonise black dance: to take back physical and cultural space. To say “No” to white bodies and voices. And for white people to accept that.

Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.

Having a black teacher at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The way you speak. The pictures you show. The language you use.

Having a nursing mother teach at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The clothes they wear. The way you speak. The start and finish times of your classes. Their bed times.

Representation is not just about black bodies or female bodies being present. It is about disrupting the status quo – making structural change – to accommodate change.

To have more women teach at big events, to have black women teach at events mean something, you will need to change the way you run events. You cannot simply slot a black or female body into a space a built for a white man and expect to change your culture. You will need to change that space completely.

A lot of your usual (white) students and attendees will feel uncomfortable with a space that privileges black culture and black people. This won’t make these students and attendees happy. They may not have a ‘nice’ time. They may find classes challenging or upsetting. They may not like the way black teachers talk to them, or that they don’t have 24/7 access to black teachers’ time and energy. They may be angry that their previous knowledge and skills weren’t valued as highly as other (black cultural) skills and knowledge are at this event.
This will be difficult for many white organisers to deal with, both in the moment, and in feedback after the event.

Are you prepared to deal with that?
No?
Then it is time you started taking classes with teachers who ask you to learn in new ways. It is time for you to humble yourself. To do things that are difficult and confronting. To be ok with feeling uncomfortable. Practice. Because you need to be ok with this. You are going to have to give up ownership of some of your most valued possessions.

Lindy hop wasn’t dead, white people. It wasn’t dead and waiting for you to revive it. It was alive, it was in the bodies and music and dance of a nation of black people. Modern lindy hop culture is marked by white culture and race, by class and power.
This is why black lindy hop matters.




*Marie N’diaye, LaTasha Barnes, and I were in conversation one night at a bar. Marie made this point. It made a profound impact on me, to have a black woman say this to me, at a white-dominated event that purported to be all about African American vernacular dance. “The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces.”

It made me realise: I do not deserve or am owed access to all black dance spaces and culture. I do not have a right to learn all the black dances, to acquire all the black cultural knowledge. It is not mine. And it is important for me to remember that a desegregated Savoy in the 1930s gave white people an even greater degree of access to and ownership of black culture and black bodies in motion. A key part of decolonising lindy hop, is for me – a white woman – sit down, and accept that I don’t get everything I want. And in that particular moment, I needed to know when to get up and leave the conversation.
Because black girl talk is important. Black vernacular is important. And I shouldn’t assume I have an automatic right to participate in it, even if it’s happening in desegregated places.

This is made explicit in Kyra’s post, How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion:

Closed spaces for marginalized identities are essential, especially ones for multiply marginalized identities, as we know from intersectionality (not to be confused with the idea that all oppression is interconnected, as many white women who have appropriated the term as self-proclaimed “intersectional feminists” seem to understand it). Any group, whether organized around a shared marginalized identity or not, will by-default be centered around the most powerful within that group. For example, cisgender white women will dominate women’s groups that aren’t run by or consciously centering trans women and women of color. A requirement for all groups to be fully open and inclusive invites the derailment and silencing of marginalized voices already pervasive in public spaces, preventing alternative spaces of relative safety from that to form. Hegemony trickles down through layers of identity, but liberation surges upwards from those who experience the most compounded layers of oppression.

Topic: improvisation, and musicians teaching us to dance (2)

Watching this post, here. As per usual, I’m not a musician, so my facts are not facts but made upness.

So if we think of this as a class exercise, and plan it accordingly.

  • At 2.34 all the sax do a synchronised bit.
  • 3.10 sax 1 does a solo for a phrase (4×8), and then the other 3 have a go each for a phrase.
  • And then they continue, each round taking less time for each solo (from 1 phrase to 2 x 8 to 1 x 8).
  • With finally everyone together again.

[ in class, we have students in groups of 4 take the role of each musician, taking turns to solo for decreasing lengths of time ]

As you watch, you can see:
[ in class, these are skills we are working on, but don’t need to point out explicitly to students. ie talk less, dance more – let them learn by doing]

  1. How the excitement builds through the structure (all together, then improvised, with less time for each, until TOGETHER: so together – solo – together is a structure that builds excitement and interest. It tells a story.
  2. How the solos within the phrase don’t have to stick to 8 or bar-long chunks. So the first sax in particular in his first solo plays across bars (8s), creating a phrase-long piece of rhythm/notes.
    -> I see this as one of the biggest weaknesses in modern lindy hop – people dance in sets of 8, rather than dancing through 8s, in one continuous block of rhythm
  3. How everyone can find the bar, the 8, the phrase (they’re all keeping time without counting numbers)
  4. Everyone comes in when they’re ready, and out when they’re done without being told (they keep their own time). So they are all paying attention and listening to each other.
  5. Individual musicians pick up an element of the solo before them, so it becomes a conversation, but the whole section holds together as a piece of music, not just as a lump of sound.
    -> this teaches students to listen to each other, to recognise the rhythms in each other’s dancing, and then to incorporate them into their own dancing.

Again, this is a common tap exercise.

Over all, students learn these basic skills:

  • keeping their own time
  • swinging the time
  • hearing and keeping bigger structures like phrases and bars
  • hearing and keeping a sense of a bigger, song-length structures – dynamics (loudness), energy, excitement, mood, etc
  • making up stuff on the spot (improvising)
  • they learn, in practice, that it’s easier to use simpler shapes and rhythms in this setting
  • how to engage with other dancers while they’re improvising (they always end up being really connected to each other, emotionally, supporting each other, when they do these games) -> ie lindy hop connection
  • they learn to watch and use their eyes to learn a rhythm or recognise a pattern
  • dealing with nerves or worry, by just going along with it and giving it a go with a group of supportive friends
  • they learn that making mistakes is less important than picking up the pieces and continuing on

All this stuff makes for great solo jazz, but it also makes for great lindy hop.
And as you can see, it’s not a matter of leads doing X and follows doing Y. It’s about learning about musical structure in a practical way (not as theory), and about learning to try and give things a go with your body.

Topic: improvisation, and musicians teaching us to dance (1)

I’ve just watched this video that Alice hooked up on fb. In this vid the musicians demonstrate how collective improvisation works in nola jazz.

Now, this is just one type of improvisation, in one type of jazz. But it’s a good example of how I think about lindy hop.
Both partners are equal participants in the band, but they have different roles. They share the same sense of time, the same beat. There’s a melody (because they are dancing a ‘standard’), and there’s a shared key, and they’ll be working in 4/4 time. The band leader sets the tempo.

But

they can do a lot of improvised stuff within that framework.
It’s a fun game to play ‘who’s the lead, who’s the follow?’ in this song. I like to think of the clarinet as the follower and the trumpeter as the leader. The leader is carrying the melody and setting the tone. The clarinet is improvising all around that.

And as the man in the video says: we are respecting the structure of phrases, of choruses, and of the build and flow of the song as a whole. So sometimes we might improvise like crazy arpeggios, and sometimes we are more subtle and find the harmony in single notes.

Anyhoo, this is how I think about jazz and how I think about lindy hop. So this is how I start all our beginners. Find the beat, keep time, learn the ‘time step’ (to borrow from tap – the basic step we use throughout this dance), then improvise. It’s ok for both people to improvise at once, it’s ok to take turns improvising it’s ok to just do it vanilla. Then of course, the way we improvise can vary, depending on the music and how we feel individually and as a team.

Lindy hop ‘rules’ I loathe

Jon T said on fb the other day:

Telling people hard and fast rules … just creates unnatural motion and stress

‘Rules’ in lindy hop create the idea that there are wrong and right ways to do things. My only class rules are ‘take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself.’

Here are some rules that came up in a discussion:

…follower should offer their hands to the leader if possible all time, since they can’t know, what comes next and when the leader needs this hand. Also not having elbow behind the body, cause this simply hurts.

I’ve heard this elbow rule repeated a zillion times over the past years. I suspect it came out of a class on sugar pushes that someone influential taught in the mid 2000s, and it’s just stuck in people’s brains, which they’ve then passed on in their classes when they started teaching.

I can think of a million points in lindy hop where my elbow goes behind my body: hand to hand charleston, tandem charleston, texas tommy, when I’m jazzing….

I’m also unsure of the ‘follows should offer their hand to the leader all the time’ rule.
Why? Sometimes I don’t want to stop jazzing.
Sometimes I have to scratch my arm while I’m dancing.
If a follow has jazzfeels, they may need their hand to express that. It’s all good.

…in our beginner classes we do a lot of telling leads to ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’ and follows to ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.

I’m a bit scared reading this directive to leads: ‘not be afraid to be firm, give clear directions’. If you’ve never danced before, ‘firm’ often translates to ‘omg that’s rough and you’re hurting me’ or ‘I am the boss’. There are also gendered associations at work here (eg a man being ‘firm’ with a recalcitrant woman). Nope.
If you are always working with the assumption that all leads are just invitations to do a particular shape, then ‘firmness’ isn’t helpful.
‘Clarity’ might be more useful. Or ‘purposeful’. I use phrases like ‘if you’d like your partner to do x rhythm, then you need to dance it as clearly and purposefully as you can, as though you are teaching a stranger a completely new thing you’ve just invented and want to share with them’.

I’m also a bit unsure of this: ‘help the leads learn to lead, by not doing the move for them, but really giving some resistance until the direction is clear’.

  1. It’s not a follow’s job to help a leader learn to lead. Yes, we are a team, but we are all responsible for our own bodies.
  2. What does ‘resistance’ mean to someone who’s never danced before? It could be translated as ‘fight the move’ or ‘resist’ or ‘don’t do it’. All troubling concepts in a teamwork environment. Maybe, if you extend that ‘invitation to dance’ idea, a follow dances and continues a rhythm or momentum or whatever they’re doing until the lead suggests something new. They suggest a new rhythm or direction or whatevs, and the follow decides whether to do it or go that way or not. Both are legit options.
  3. I find this conceptual framework deeply troubling. It sets up leading and following as antagonistic, whereas I much prefer the idea of us as a partnership, a team, sharing ideas, rather than executing steps perfectly.

…put a little weight in your partner’s hands…

I honestly have no idea what ‘put a little weight into your partner’s hands’ might mean. It sounds suspiciously like the ideas of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ follows, and who cares about that stuff. It’s rubbish.

…it’s def8natley important to explain to people when and how to collapse their frame if they feel they need to, for safety or comfort.

In principle I agree, but I’d never explain it like that. I often say to follows, “If a lead is holding you too tightly or you feel uncomfortable, or you’re just not into it, let go!” And I say to the leads, “If your partner lets go of your hand, _don’t try to keep hold of them!_ Let them go! Let them goooooo”.
And of course, the idea is that if a follow lets go, it’s because they don’t want to hold your hand. Or it slipped out of your hand. Or whatevs. Its a signal to you, so look at them, and see what they feel. Are they solo jazzing? Are they angry? Are they crying? What? Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.

The lesson for leads, here, is that they need to be ok with follows saying ‘no’ to physical contact, and that they need to pay attention to follows all the time. It’s not a one-way line of communication.

I think that follows are often told to maintain the physical contact _at all costs_, and this scares me.
If I’m going to get hurt, I eject! Get on out of there! It’s ok to just let go! It’s ok to step out of your partner’s arms. You might not be ready to say “Stop! I don’t like it!” but the best and simplest option when you’re worried a person might hurt you is to step out of physical contact. BOOM.

Honestly, the more I think about this line of thinking, the more upset I am.
I think we should teach leads and follows that discomfort, pain, or fear are _not_ something we should tolerate or hide. Leads: don’t be hurting people! Follows: don’t hide your pain to salve a lead’s pride!

Where you might begin in developing a code of conduct or safety policy

Ok, so I’ve been looking at how we might develop a ‘how to develop a safe space policy’ guide.
I’ve only got a sample size of two, but I wonder if this is a useful approach:

  1. You need to know your local laws regarding sexual harassment and assault. So a google search will help. I begin with these sorts of search terms “Australia” “Sexual harassment” “laws” .
  2. From here you can often find a link to the specific law or act referring to harassment, equity, human rights, etc etc. Each country will address this issue in a different way. And each legal system is different – eg we don’t have a bill of rights in Australia.
    BUT it’s hard to figure your way through an act if you’re not used to the language.
    Luckily there are good community education bodies to help you make sense of it. They often come up in the first page of your google search.
  3. I use the country’s human rights commission or similar body as a source to help me untangle this language. They often have simple language versions of the law, and specific examples of harassment.
  4. I’ve noticed (in my two examples  ) that sexual harassment is grouped with other types of harassment and discrimination as infringing human rights. This is useful for us as dancers in the current ideological climate, because the relevant act may refer specifically to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, sex, etc etc. This gives us a starting point for addressing issues like the black roots of lindy hop _and_ sexual assault in the same policy.Here, the link between discrimination and harassment is key.
  5. At this point, it really helps if your organisation has a statement of intent, or a mandate or manifesto or something. eg the Melbourne Jazz Dance Association (which runs Melbourne Lindy Exchange (MLX)) has this one, which was a legal requirement for setting up a nonprofit business structure:

    The Melbourne Jazz Dance Association is a non-profit organisation devoted to the preservation and promotion of vernacular jazz dance and music in Melbourne, Australia. Our goal is to produce affordable dance events for Melbourne and visiting dancers, promoting the history of the dance as well as the current dance community.

    From here, this sort of statement helps us rough out a general policy or way of making our code of conduct fit in with our existing statements. If I was to rewrite this mjda statement, I’d add ‘accessible’ before the word ‘affordable’, which would cover us for talking about harassment and discrimination.

From this point, you have some very useful tools.

  • A legal definition of sexual harassment and sexual assault (note this isn’t legally binding or even legally accurate – you’ll need to consult a lawyer for this stuff)
  • It’s culturally specific. ie it reflects your country’s legal and social understanding of sexual assault and harassment. This is important because your event, and your actions, are governed by your country’s laws.
  • You have specific examples of sexual harassment and assault. This is important for helping the targets of harassment (women and girls, for the most part) put a name and a limit to their ‘bad feeling’ about an interaction. It validates their experience. It also gives you language tools for explaining to offenders why they are banned from your event – they did X, Y, or Z. And of course it helps you feel more confident in your actions. You’re not just acting on ‘a feeling’. You’re acting on facts.
  • You can connect sexual harassment and assault up with discrimination. This is important because it lets us talk about racism, ageism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in one conversation. Our code of conduct can group these different types of discrimination together and let us address a number of issues at once.
    This is the ‘missing link’ for addressing the way sexism dovetails with racism and class in the modern lindy hop scene. It gives us a way of talking about how come male teachers are paid more, there are more male DJs at high level events, or why women are overrepresented as volunteers. It’s about power. Sexual harassment is about power more than it is about sex. And racism is about power and privilege. About who gets to tell the stories, in their words.

Now you can start writing up a very rough draft of your code of conduct.

  • What are your values?
    What do you want your event to be about? Good live music? Great social dancing? Innovative class structures? Huge crowds? Small crowds? What?
  • What are your rules?
    What do you not want to happen at events (in general terms, but also specifically)?
  • What are the consequences for breaking rules?
  • How can people report harassment or assault?
  • How do you respond to reports, document reports, and then store your reports safely?

At this point you’ll see that you have a very dry, often very long list that’s both really depressing and really exciting. You aren’t ready to publish this yet. It’s definitely not something that’ll work as a public document, let alone a intra-organisational document.

From here, you need to do some testing.
Develop a few scenarios, and role-play the process. Horribly, we have a fair few real life examples in the modern lindy world to work with.

Some examples:

  1. A big name international teacher is publicly reported for sexual assault in a blog post. He has previously taught in your country. You scroll down your facebook feed and see he’s just been announced as teaching in your city. What will you do?
  2. You receive an email from a person acting as an agent on a reporter’s behalf. This agent is a reliable source – someone you know and trust. The reporting woman is terrified of repercussions and wants to remain anonymous. Her report outlines in detail how a male teacher assaulted her at an event in the previous year. You have just booked this teacher for your event in 9 months time. The reporting woman discovers this booking as you’ve just announced it publicly. What will you do?
  3. You see a guy in his 20s physically lifting a new female dancer into a pop jump on the dance floor at your monthly party. She clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing. You can’t tell if she’s actually enjoying this, or just faking it. What do you do?
  4. Two young Asian women come to you at the party you run fortnightly, and tell you that an older Anglo man has been making sexual suggestions to them during class, holding them in too tight an embrace, and sending them facebook messages. He is at the party. What do you do?

And so on. Scenarios like this are very useful for testing your own values and process. And an important part of this process is to flesh out your imaginary people:
Give your ‘big name international teacher’ an age, gender, ethnicity, teaching speciality, comp wins, teaching experience, etc.
Flesh out your agent working for the reporting woman – are they male, female, trans, older, younger, white, black, a teacher, a DJ, tall, short, what?

Do the same for the staff responding to each situation – make them real people. And try to make them people representative of the members of your local area. Not your local dance scene, but the real, live people who live in your city. Census data is very useful here.

Now swap around some of the identity markers. What if the Two young Asian women are also trans? What if they’re anglo and their person hassling them is Asian?

Document your scenarios.

Ok, now go back and rewrite your code. And your rules.
What would have helped in the scenarios? Would it have been useful to have a small printed copy of your rules to give to that guy when you tell him off for hassling those women at the party? Then make one.
If you needed to call the police at one point, would you have called the emergency number, or your local police station? Do you have both numbers? Do you need a little sign with this info on it for volunteers? Make one. How big does the font need to be? Can you read it in a dimly lit dance room?
How do your door staff know what to do? How would you train them?
Where do you keep written reports? Where do you write the reports? Who has access to them?

And so on.
Yep, it’s a fair bit of work. But some of it is actually pretty fun.
You’ll never be done with this work. Each time you encounter a new incident, you’ll get new skills, you’ll revise your processes, and you’ll revisit your values. Maybe ‘good music’ is less important than ‘don’t hire DJs who’ve raped someone’. Maybe ‘good music’ means telling your band leader explicitly that the musicians cannot arrive drunk or play drunk. And then perhaps you need to be specific about defining ‘drunk’.

For me, there are some overarching ‘rules’ in this work:

– the reporter’s safety is paramount. That means anonymity, confidentiality.
– the safety of the staff handling the report is paramount. This may also mean anonymity and confidentiality. It can also mean training for staff, having access to a quiet, safe room with a lockable door, knowing when and how to call the police (or if it’s safe to call the police), etc etc etc.
– ask the reporter what they need to feel safe. You don’t have to do these things, but it’ll be helpful to know.
– limits and boundaries are key. Knowing when to stop working is essential.
– I need to know when I will stop working on this issue. What is my limit?

My own, personal rule – the reason why I do this – is this:

I am responsible for my fellow humans. I choose to care about what happens to them. I choose to do what I can, whenever I can. Not just because it feels like the morally right thing to do. But because caring, and doing right makes me a better person. A stronger, braver, better person.

I could quote you long passages from my favourite feminists (Nancy Fraser, anyone?) about why being a feminist means being a pragmatic feminist. Being an activist. I simply define feminism as being about thinking and doing. It’s about social justice, but it’s about actively choosing to get involved. To do something. This is an act of power and resistance for a woman in my culture. We are trained to not act, to not get involved, not to agitate, educate, or organise. So the very act of speaking up, standing up, and acting is an act of feminism. It is liberatory. But that’s not the whole thing.

I guess it’s really about my believing, very strongly, that I have a responsibility to do what I can for other people. I choose not to be a bystander. I choose to be an agent. Because I find sitting by while other people need me untenable. I just can’t do it. If I can do something, I do it. Not because I want to be a ‘troublemaker’ or an ‘agitator’, but because I feel it is the right thing to do. To care about other people. To care for them, and about more than just myself.