I’m quite regularly asked by random dudebros to help them understand feminism or whatevs it is we grownups are talking about. The questions usually start out quite reasonable (I discuss one in this post), but gradually escalate until I realise dudebro is snowing me under with bullshit questions that turn into mansplains and manrants. I tend to give them one or two questions, and then I shut shit down. That means I delete their comments and often block them on fb. Because, mates, I just cannot be fucked. And I don’t want some niggling bastard following me around fb being a pain in the arse.
But the important part of being an ally (ie a bloke who digs feminism) is that you go out and get your learn on. This isn’t a bullshit lindy hop class where the teacher just ‘gives’ you a bunch of moves, counts you in all the time, answers all your questions in detail (instead of having you test the theory yourself), and generally babies you. This is feminism, where you are responsible for your own learns. And as a bloke, you’re in a better position to do that learning.
Your annoying questions are getting in the way of grown ups kicking the patriarchy.
Teaching and caring is labour, emotional and intellectual labour. And part of feminism is uncoupling ides of the feminine from the notion of ‘carer’. It’s giving women permission not to take on the role of ‘mother’ if they don’t want to. Or don’t have time to.
Remind me to write up a report on how our new reporting and preventing sexual harassment and accidents process went at LBW.
Short version: it worked.
Mid-length version: we put together a door handbook, reporting forms, and a process for reporting incidents. We ‘trained’ managers in the process, and we let volunteers know about the process via the handbook, email, and in person talk.
Long version: how online discussions, reports of assaults made by very brave women and girls, and getting angry and upset led to the development of policies, of material codes and rules, and then practical processes and documents. A success story.
A brief paper version of the code printed on the back of the event program which was packed into registrants’ envelopes.
A full version of the code printed and put into the event handbook.
Paper incident report forms in the event handbook.
A process for making reports (including a quiet place to do the, who should do them, and how, etc etc).
Most importantly, we needed good will from all the volunteers, staff, and managers. And that was the easy bit. Everyone was really keen to make this work, and really just saw this as an extension of our Swing Dance Sydney rules:
Look after your partner
Look after the music
Look after yourself
What a lovely group of people.
This is by no means a finished project, but it’s actually turned out to be a very interesting and productive one.
Packing the code of conduct (on the back of the program) into registrants’ envelopes.
A first version of our event handbook, which contains lots of things, including: event program in plain text, door count sheets, cash count sheets, incident report forms, code of conduct, guide to identifying wrist bands, various paper signs, etc etc. All in one central folder.
There were two copies of this handbook, and each has a plastic slip on the front for adding notes or action items when handing over shifts or responsibilities.
A first draft of our incident report form, which drew on examples provided by lots of useful people who work in places that have decent reporting processes for accidents, etc.
These forms are in our event handbook.
The longer version of our code of conduct, in paper form. It explains what counts as sexual harassment, and s.h. is just part of the ’emergency’ and ‘incident’ part of the handbook, after what to do if there’s a fire.
The paper version of our code of conduct on the back of an event program. Which is available at the door at events, in registrants’ rego packs, and as a promotional item distributed to venues in the week or two before the event.
Having it so readily available is an attempt to normalise this sort of talk and material. So ordinary that everyone has read it.
[Note] That was the original post. Then there were some comments. Here are some of them.[/]
Tal Engel: Can you elaborate on the phrase “it worked”? Are there any incidents you’re comfortable discussing where the system came into play?
We had no reports (thankfully, but also – maybe we had incidents but no reports?), so I can’t talk about that issue.
But I think ‘it worked’ relates mostly to the ‘consciousness raising’ part of the exercise, to quote old school activism. So by having lots of people involved in the process, from stuffing envelopes to handling a handbook, we gave people access to the code, and to the process. We demystified our process, but we also demystified sexual assault and harassment a bit. I hope.
I also wanted to make it clear that these things are _all_ of our responsibilities, and something that happens in our public places between friends, not in dark car parks by strangers.
It also ‘worked’ as a practical skills development process for me, and for the rest of the group. So actually putting together a handbook took some practice and real thinking – far more than I had expected. And it took several drafts to create something more accessible. Still needs work I reckon.
It also worked as a way of engaging all the staff in thinking about events as community spaces, where problems (whether they’re someone needing a bandaid, or someone needing a quiet place to sit and talk) are solveable.
…I think one of the most effective parts of this whole process was the online discussion of this process on our facebook event page.
I just matter of factly laid out the deal. But this also dovetailed with the way I engage with people on the event fb page: prompt replies to queries, but professional in tone. I also use my real name and face on event pages (rather than the event’s home page ID), so that our events have a ‘face’ and a name behind them. This makes it easier for people to see who they’re ‘talking to’, but also says ‘hey, I respond to your concerns’, which hopefully sets up an example of how I might respond to reports of assaults.
More importantly, this public talk in a public forum also addresses the lurkers, who are the vast majority of readers. They might never post on the page, but they read how I engage, and see what I do.
I’d really, really hope that this also normalises modes of discourse for this topic. ie just as having other women leads in your scene encourage other women to lead, having someone addressing these issues clearly, personally, and professionally might also encourage similiar responses.
What I really hope is that people will do as I do when I go to an event: see the best stuff other people do and then copy shamelessly in an attempt to be as good at it as they are. So hopefully people will see what I did, steal the good bits, and improve on it all, fixing the bits I’m not good at.
Related to this ‘putting a face and name to an event’ stuff, is having badges for volunteers. It’s something for volunteers and staff to know when they’re on duty (you take it off when you’re off duty), but it’s also a clear way of identifying staff (and you need to tell punters about this). If I had more money, I’d have done Tshirts :D
I’d add that this wasn’t a particularly difficult process. It just took a while. And we had to approach it as an iterative process: where you don’t just do it and then, boom, it’s finished. You see each version as one step in an ongoing process.
I think that it was very important to be very angry and determined to do this. If I hadn’t be so angry, and if I hadn’t wanted so much to look out for my peeps, I probably would have given up ages ago.
I think this process makes it very clear that a simple code of conduct squirrelled away on a website is pretty much useless on it’s own.
Some of the most important parts of this process were:
Having a lateral power structure (rather than a top-down power pyramid dynamic thingy), where everyone had a role to play, and power to do things and make decisions – from volunteers and people making reports to musicians and managers. To me, this is THE most important part of this process. If it’s just a boss ‘saving’ women, then we’re not changing anything; we’re reinforcing the status quo.
Getting people involved by asking for help, by posting about my sticking points on fb (eg posting that I needed a reporting form but had no clue where to start gave me a bunch of useful comments and messages, plus actual examples of other people’s forms).
Letting go and letting other people do stuff.
[note]After some other discussion, I got to this point…[/] What I’d really like to do is get together with other organisers and peeps at some weekend event to talk through what we do and what they do. There’s already a very healthy network of people sharing ideas, but I want MORE!
[note]This is the bit I want to emphasise. I’ve learnt most from seeing what other people are doing. And I want MORE of it.[/]
As an example, I learnt a lot from talking to Ben Beccari about handbooks and practical emergency response stuff. He’s doing a Phd in disaster response, so he’s kind of mad skilled. I also talked to people like Liam Hogan about how the SES does stuff here. And I had examples from friends of reporting strategies (I’d better not name them in case it’s meant to be confidential :D ). I also followed up ideas with my femmo stroppo mates (like Kerryn, Zoe, Kate, Penni, Tammi, Liah, Naomi, Daniel, and MANY more) for their suggestions and ideas, which came from their big brains, and also their experience as activists at community and local levels.
…I keep adding names, but there are too many. So many people had excellent ideas.
So, that’s what I have from that post.
I’ve written about what we’ve been doing in a few other posts already:
Let’s get material about sexual harassment (25 April 2015): a discussion about my 3-part approach to responding to and preventing sexual harassment (1. Develop a code of conduct, 2. Work towards cultural change, 3. Developing strategies for practical change (including actually confronting men about their behaviour))*
*1. I think a code of conduct is important because it sets out your goals and ideals in plain language. I go into why codes are important in this post.
2. ‘Cultural change‘ is about changing the way we do things. The way we think about teaching and teach, the way we think about learning and learn, the way we think about social dancing and social dance, the way we think about partners and treat our partners, the way we think about ourselves and treat ourselves. All of this stuff changes what we do and think about what we do. I like to mix feminism with historical example: I have clear political goals, but I want to use and stay true to the creative and practical examples of the swing and jazz era.
3. Developing strategies for practical change means confronting men about their behaviour, training staff, and banning offenders. But in a thoughtful, organised way, not a random, ad-hoc way. Our practical actions (what we actually do) must be guided by solid thinking and a sense of consequence. We need to be safe, we need to confident, we need to be organised.
**In this one I wrote this paragraph, which really sums up my whole purpose:
There have been some scary moments, but, for the most part, it’s actually been a very exciting and positive experience. Sitting down and thinking about what we want to do, and talking about the good things we want to see has been very exciting. It makes us feel good. This is what activism is about: you start by getting angry. You do some learning, and then you start doing things which make you powerful.
***One of the most important parts of dealing with sexual harassment, is women having the confidence to speak up. To speak in public. Male perpetrators rely on women and girls being too frightened to speak up and challenge them. To tell people about the things that men are doing. They threaten women and girls into staying silent, and they rely on broader social forces which discourage women to keep them quiet.
When those women first wrote about Mitchell’s violent criminal acts on this blog, one of the responses was that they should have made private complaints, spoken to the police, been more polite. More careful.
Their speaking up was very important. Very, very important. And this is one of the reasons I’m not entirely for male feminists. I think that the very act of speaking up is a political act, and one of the key parts of being a feminist. We are told sit down and shut up. And when we stand up and say no, we are doing a radical thing.
And this is where I’ll end this post.
We have to speak up. A private email or private discussion between a woman and her attacker or an organiser is an extension of the conditions that made that assault possible in the first place. We are supposed to push issues of sex and interpersonal violence between men and women into the private sphere. It’s not supposed to be appropriate for public discussion.
In simpler terms, I know that if I send a private email to a man who is a sexual offender or one of their offenders, he’s much more likely to try to bully me, frighten me, attack me. I do my talk in public now, because it’s safer. I want witnesses. Just as I don’t ban or warn offenders in person unless I’m in a public place with plenty of witnesses.
And I know this, because it happens. So I say: speak up. Be sure you have buddies to get your back, but speak up. And by buddies, I’m saying ‘sisterhood is powerful’. This is what that expression means: when we work together, women and girls are far more powerful than most men would like to think. We can protect each other and ourselves.
And after all, that’s what all this is about: women protecting themselves and each other.
It’s been quite a long time since I posted here, mostly because I have been SO BUSY. But also because my attention has been caught by facebook. A long time twitter user, I used to talk about interesting stuff with my friends there, in the relative privacy of a protected twitter account. But then every started to move away from twitter, and towards facebook. And I went too.
I’m hesitant to float all my ideas on facebook, simply because the audience is so much wider than my twitter readership. And the audience is more diverse. On twitter I was writing for and with people who largely had a background and politics like mine. People who knew how to discuss and test out ideas. Clever, curious people. But when I post on facebook, I know that those people are still listening and reading, but they’re just one group out of many. I hesitate before posting loaded articles or comments, because I know that most readers and commenters will write without pausing to think, and the discussion will degrade into frustrating derailments.
So why don’t I post here instead? The audience is smaller than facebook, and the long form I really enjoy using here is deterrent enough for most readers. In other words, I write so much most people don’t bother reading til the end. So I can hide a lot of my thinking and writing in plain sight. But it is long form. And I like the to-and-fro of twitter, where you can float a quick thought, and get a dozen quick, witty, or thoughtful responses. But that doesn’t happen on twitter any more. Twitter has largely gone dark. In my sphere anyway.
Most of the people I speak with on twitter were friends I met online in the earlier days of blogging. Ten, eleven years ago. When those conversations happened in comment threads, and in responsive posts. We moved onto twitter as our lives changed, even though some of us might still be dropping the odd blog post. Or newspaper or magazine article or journal article. And now we’re speaking on facebook. We’re making longer status updates, discussing links or stories, and engaging in discussions in comment threads. Again. And we’ve brought those ten, eleven years of experience talking and writing online to facebook. Thing is, facebook’s mass audience doesn’t have that experience.
My larger problem with writing and thinking on facebook, is that facebook is one of the places where I work. That’s where I do the promotion and advertising and posting to support and promote my business projects. My dance classes, my larger events, my DJing. Despite this, I’ve recently shifted my public professional talk to represent my private and public political talk, which I might previously have kept a little to the side. This has been made possible (necessary?) by issues developing in 2015.
The first, public, and largely positive discussion of Steven Mitchell’s long term sexual harassment, rapes, and grooming of women and girls within the lindy hop and blues dance scenes. The bravery – and power – of these women and girls speaking up and naming names. Talking about issues which have largely been awkwardly ignored by the lindy hop community. All of these things made me realise that my public, professional talk needed to be more clearly informed by my more private political thinking. I saw this as another example of my engagement with lindy hop moving closer to my background, my training in academia.
So I have, as my social media manager colleagues say, ‘shifted my public professional brand to incorporate my feminist politics’. In part because the public lindy hop discourse now allows this sort of talk. I can talk about gender, power, sexuality, class, ethnicity, etcetera, as a dance teacher and organiser, and I’m not written off as ‘too radical’. Because, sadly, the Mitchell issue has made it impossible to ignore the fact that we need to talk about these things.
In a practical sense, I can use my academic background in my current role. My deep, critical knowledge of gender politics, discourse, and ideology gives me the thinking and practical skills for addressing sexual harassment within my local dance community, via my business activities. It’s been quite exciting to see that I have the skills required for writing and talking about gender and power in a dance context. And working at a higher, postgraduate, or professional academic level. This seems to me the logical extension of feminist thinking: practical activism. And I really, really like it that this work can happen at a very local, very personal level. I find it essential to think about what I do and write as having immediate, practical consequences for people I see every week, and speak to every day. This isn’t academic; it is immediate and practical.
One of the things I quite like about my current job, is writing every day. I really quite like learning to write about these issues as part of a broader strategy for a) selling dance and music (through classes or events or DJing and so on), and b) promoting sustainable community development (where the community is centred on dance and music, but reaches out into the broader community). Where sustainability is recorded in financial, social, and cultural measures.
And I do like the way this writing asks me to articulate ideas I have about dance and music as art and as a site for activism. This means that I tend to lean on ideas of vernacular dance as a public discourse. A place for ordinary people to exchange ideas and to discuss and argue. But it also means that this public discourse is also a site for public, collaborative creative work. And lindy hop being what it is, most of this creative and intellectual work is also joyful. Full of happiness and light.
I think that this is why lindy hop is a particularly powerful tool for feminism. It lends itself to jokes, to kindness, to a lightness of heart. Frankie Manning is often quoted as saying that lindy hop is a very happy dance. But I think it is far more a hopeful dance. After all, for a dance with its roots in slavery and african american segration and oppression to feel happy, it must be bloody well loaded up with hope.
I’m often struck by the coincidence of Frankie Manning’s birthday being Sorry Day in Australia. A day of national reconciliation. It’s a day where we acknowledge our darker history, and hope for kindness and change. For reconciliation. I find it difficult to read the almost beatific accounts of Frankie Manning’s life on facebook on that particular day. Because it is a day where aboriginal Australians remember and speak up about the more horrible parts of Australia’s history and present. But I do think that it’s also appropriate. Frankie Manning was no stranger to racism and segregation. He knew people who had been slaves. He knew people who had been lynched. He would have understood the importance of the reconciliation movement.
For me, lindy hop and jazz dance, and jazz music are tools for liberation and reconciliation. They are handy tools in the activist’s tool box. I really do enjoy the fact that good lindy hop requires partners listen to and respect each other. I do love it that we can say to our beginner students, “Check in with your partner. Do you have your lines of communication open? Are they with you? Do they dig what you’re doing?” We say to our beginners in their very first class, “Each person you dance with is a different size and shape, and they listen to the music in their own way. You need to adjust for that, and you need to take time to get on the same page.”
This is profoundly feminist to me. I see my dance classes as feminist work. As well as bloody good fun. I do like it that I can use this language and these ideas for running events as well as classes. And the fact that lindy hop requires this mutual respect and communication to do good creative work is very exciting. It’s a very nice place to begin a discussion of working conditions and labour in lindy hop. It’s a fantastic model for mutual respect and healthy, consensual relationships between men and women (whether sexual or not).
Anyway, I don’t have much more to say. You’ll be disappointed if you thought this was going to be an inflammatory rant. But if you’re a meninist who believes in feminist conspiracies, you’ll be delighted. Except it’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a reality. There’s a whole bunch of us out there using lindy hop as a tool to fight patriarchy. And we certainly don’t try to hide it.
I think it’s worth copying this discussion from fb to here. Not too long ago I got into a ‘discussion’ on fb about why codes of conduct are important. One of the things that struck me was how aggressively one woman rejected the idea of structural change to reduce attacks on women (ie codes of conduct), and also tried to get me to moderate my tone. A bit of ‘tone policing‘.
I often have people (especially men) say they won’t read what I write, or don’t think what I’m saying is important because I swear too much, or because I’m ‘too aggressive’. In the case of this woman, somehow a discussion about whether codes of conduct are important became a bit of a ‘pity party’ for her. It was interesting, because I see this sort of tactic from women quite often. They’re disagreed with, so they respond by playing the martyr so people will ‘stop being mean’ (read: stop disagreeing with them). This is interesting in this case, because she’d said earlier in that thread that she didn’t think we needed codes of conduct because she feels confident enough to speak up for herself.
The tone policing is important, because the very point of the discussion was to change conditions so that women had more room to speak up for themselves, to accuse an attacker, to prevent harassment of other women, to agitate for social change, to be disagreeable.
I find that whenever I’m particularly confident or fierce in my language (even without swearing! :D ), I’m described as being ‘aggressive’ or ‘bullying’. When I reread what I’ve written, I’m really not being aggressive or bullying. I’m being confident. What I suspect is that the cliche of people seeing a woman who speaks at all in public as ‘aggressive’ applies here. And, more importantly, this idea of an ‘aggressive’ woman is deeply unsettling. For men, and for women who identify with a conventional gender identity.
There’s a lot going on in this exchange, but the bits that caught my interest were:
this woman used her personal experience to justify resisting a policy which would protect people who had other experiences;
the combination of ‘I’m strong enough to speak up for myself’ and the ‘stop being mean!’ in her language. It was conflicting logic which unsettled the discussion, and established her as a little ‘unstable’ and conventionally feminine (hence justifying the idea that we should be kind to her);
I was actually rather moderate in my responses to her – I didn’t swear at her (I rarely do that; I swear near people all the time, but very, very rarely swear at people – that’s not cool), but I very clearly engaged with her points individually. This was the point at which she switched tactics from ‘oh, but I don’t think we need that’ to ‘don’t be mean!’ She positioned herself as being ‘attacked’, rather than being engaged in discussion;
somehow we ended up a long way from a discussion of actual, physical attacks on women, instead having one woman positioning herself as ‘under attack’ when she was really just being disagreed with.
This is something that women often do. They manage a conversation that isn’t going their way through a combination of performing a defenceless victim role, and quite selfish arguments against working to safeguard other women. To me, this is the most disturbing part of patriarchy. It recruits women in their own disempowerment.
One of the consequences it had for me, was to doubt my own thinking. Was I ‘being mean’? I went through and reread the discussion. No, I wasn’t. I didn’t add any personal attacks (where I attacked her, rather than her argument), I didn’t get nasty with her. I just engaged each of her points, outlining how they were inaccurate. I think this was the issue: she saw a sustained disagreement as an ‘attack’.
I know there comes a point where we should abandon arguments online, or face to face. For all sorts of reasons. And usually I do, because GOD TIRED. But at that point I decided I’d see this through and untangle each of the points she presented.
What I was left thinking, was that when a woman does engage in public disagreements, using consistent, persistent logic or resistance, she’s perceived as ‘aggressive’. This is so in conflict with my training as a Phd and MA candidate, that I can’t quite accept it. I am trained to think through a point to it’s logical conclusion. I’m trained to hang onto an idea, working it over and over, to see where it leads.
I know that women are trained to avoid conflict, to use other methods for disagreeing or disapproving. But I think that it is important to be persistent in discussions sometimes, particularly as a woman. I deliberately chose not to adopt that preferred feminine mode of response where I would have apologised or reframed my points to make her feel comfortable. I wanted to discomfort her logic. Just that one time.
Because I get so tired of being sensible and calm and gentle. I’m tired of hearing the ‘you catch more flies with honey’ line. Being angry is important. And in this instance, where we are talking about sexual assault, physical attacks on women, I think it essential that we get angry. We need to persist. Being angry and loud and disagreeable is powerful. It’s feminist. It should unsettle and disturb. Those men who harass women rely on their not speaking up. They rely on women keeping quiet to avoid drama, violence, or being accused of being ‘aggressive’. So we should practice speaking up.
Anyhoo, moving on. This exchange was an example of how one woman argued that her personal experience was justification for not adopting systemic change.
I’ve also heard this argument against adopting codes of conduct: ‘we deal with these issues on a case by case basis’. This argument is a way of insisting that individualism is more important than collectivism. Or, more clearly, it makes it impossible to see the forrest for the trees. If we respond to each assault as a ‘single case’, we are so busy dealing with ‘cases’, we don’t see patterns. I think that the case by case approach is an explicit tool for resisting change, and enabling sexual assault. Because it responds to sexual assault, rather than preventing it. Assaults will still happen; women will still be attacked. The power of the authority ‘dealing’ with incidences is maintained; women are kept powerless. They’re not given tools to prevent assault. Men aren’t taught that assaulting women is not ok. I discussed this in my previous post, ‘yes all men, and all women. all of us.’.
Societies and cultures and communities are groups of individuals. But we are also people with shared experiences, and there are patterns of behaviour and experience. Collectivism is an important concept if we are to prevent sexual assault, not just respond to it.
What’s an example of a systemic barrier in organisations? I’m not being difficult, it’s just sometimes easier to see things once they’re pointed out that’s all
This was the perfect question. If we aren’t dealing with sexual assault on a case-by-case basis, if there are ‘systemic barriers’ (or broader cultural patterns of disempowerment), how do we identify them? This is a tricky one. And such a good question.
In a lindy hop context, not paying women teachers as much as male teachers, or only offering dances classes at the times babbies need the most care (ie 6.30pm). Both are examples of how an organisation or system makes it harder for women to continue teaching or learning, and favour men or people who don’t have child-caring responsibilities.
Still a systemic barrier, but more about discursive barriers: always referring to follows as ‘she’ or ‘ladies’.
Learning to see barriers is harder if you tend to benefit from barriers that affect others inversely. I keep my radar out, and the things that usually ping that radar are, for example, structural things that are divided by gender, or only affect women. So, for example, ‘wearing high heels in lindy hop’. If only women wear heels, or are encouraged to wear heels, I’m immediately suspicious. Similarly, if beginner dance classes divide students into leads and follows, but use gendered language to do so (eg ‘ladies over here, men over here’).
Context is important, of course. So because we live in the context of patriarchy, I tend to be suspicious of things that are related to gender. But you might also be looking for things like ethnicity: are all the teachers in a school white/anglo? Are all the performers in a troupe white/anglo? Are all the students in a class white/anglo? If that’s the case, then the next step is to ask ‘why?’ If you see broader patterns, then it’s probably structural or systemic barriers at work, preventing or discouraging certain people from entering the group.
The next step is then to start investigating. You can ask people of colour (POC) why they aren’t taking dance classes, but it’s more useful to start by observing things like language, social settings, clothing and other cultural stuff, etc etc.
Luckily, we have a few generations of feminists and other activists and thinkers to give us an idea of what to look for, and how to look for it.
Probably the most important tool for you, as hooman, is critical thinking. If you see something (eg no women on a DJing team), ask ‘why’, rather than just accepting it, or accepting an excuse like ‘there just aren’t any women DJs’. Similarly, if we see it’s only women, or mostly women being sexually harassed in a dance scene, ask ‘why?’ Because there are patterns (ie it’s women, not women and men being harassed in large numbers), then there are probably broader factors at play, beyond individual people – eg systemic, structural, discursive, cultural factors.
Once you’ve observed those systemic barriers, you can set about dismantling them. If you are in a position of relative privilege, then you are in a great place to do this sort of work.
I feel, as someone who benefits from systemic barriers (because I am a white, middle class women living in a big city in a developed country), I feel I have a responsibility to ask questions, and to be curious or suspicious. The nice thing about jazz dance, is that as a vernacular dance (ie a street dance, or ordinary social dance), it really works well as a tool for changing things, or asking questions, or being curious and creative.
I think, then, to summarise, addressing systemic change is about empathy. Thinking beyond your own personal experience. And I think that this is where my real problem with that woman at the beginning of this post lies. I believe in using empathy, imagining what it’s like to be someone else, to address patriarchy. That woman made an explicit call for empathy: ‘don’t be mean’. But I persisted, even though it caused her discomfort. Was this unfeminist? If sisterhood is at the heart of feminism (for me), then should I have stopped ‘being mean’?
It’s a tricky one. When I write on fb or here on this blog, I always remember that there are far, far more people reading along than commenting. So when I continued in that discussion, not heeding her ‘don’t be mean’ response, I risked alienating readers. Particularly female readers.
But I know that demonstrating how different ways of being a woman is important. Just as the best way to get more women leading in lindy hop is to have more women leading in lindy hop, having women speaking up and being disagreeable – and coming out of it unscathed – is a way to model speaking up for yourself when you’re sexually harassed.
The irony, of course, is that many conservative peeps find it difficult to empathise with women who aren’t conventionally feminine, who aren’t quiet and meek victims. Who are confident and vocal and disagreeable.
But as we all know, bitches get shit done.
In that setting, I figure I can be that outlier – the bitch at the far end of the spectrum. And hopefully someone else can fly under the radar, being sneakily subversive, rather than loud and stroppy. Me, I don’t have the patience. I’m femmo stroppo because my friends are being assaulted – attacked, raped, hurt – by men. And there’s no time to waste.
My jazz nerdery has reached (glorious) new heights.
This genuine jazz zine (accompaniment to our jazz history class) can be YOURS for the grand sum of 50AUc. PM to find out how to get it to your house.
Now available ONLINE as my journey into capitalism continues: http://swingdancesydney.com/shop.html
Price: now incredibly high (to cover postage), but also with the added incredible experience of receiving actual PAPER MAIL
Here’s a long post I wrote on the plane on the way to Snowball last December. As per usual, it goes on a long time, so get yourself ready. No complaints about long posts! This is a blog – that’s what they’re for!
This post can be summarised as:
1. Make it easy for everyone to have fun.
2. What you play is not as important as the combinations you play them in.
3. These combinations are dictated by the crowd’s feels, not how you feel in your pants.
Here is the long version:
I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I reckon most DJs think too much while they’re DJing. Normally, when someone tells me I think too much, I roll my eyes at them, because that’s fucked up. But I do reckon DJing is like dancing: it’s an exercise in being present. Be right there with the dancers. Feel what they feel. Read their bodies like you would your partner’s, and work with their feels. Respond with empathy. Help them feel good, because you want to feel good too.
And you know what? Your incredible collection of rare and unusual jazz means nothing NOTHING, if you haven’t looked at the dancers during your set. Get out of your ear phones NOW. Look up. STAND up! Get the feels. Your heart should be pumping like you’ve just danced all those songs. Get a contact high. Feel their feels.
Here’s the sad news, buddy: your music is pop music. A zillion people have already ‘found’ that song before. So take pleasure in fun songs, rather than in finding something rare that no one else has. Your JOB, your PURPOSE as a DJ is to share music with people. Not share as in ‘give this bounty to the people’ but share as in ‘do you like this song? Here, I’ll play it, and we’ll see what we think.’ Most of the most popular dance songs of today are popular because they meet dancers’ needs and are nice and simple and fun. And that is ok. Lindy hop: it’s not brain surgery. It’s FUN.
That’s how I DJ. I do all my thinking before I get out there, I practice practice practice.
What do I do before I DJ?
I classify my music.
listen to my music and classify the songs. I note bpms. I note whether it’s ‘upenergy’ or ‘mediumenergy’ or ‘lowenergy’. Which are as simple as they sound: does this song make me crazy with excitement? Or not. If I think it’s ‘fun’, ‘lovely,’ or ‘nice’, I put that in the comments. Is it really long? I use the genre tag to describe city/style/etc – eg NOLA small group male vocal; 1930s big band instrumental; etc. I give it 3 stars or more if it’s something danceable. I classify it as a ‘kissing song’ if it’s ~110bpm, and feels like you want to kiss your squeeze rather than dance. I note whether it feels like ‘charleston’, ‘lindy hop’, or ‘blues. These last 3 are just for my own brain, and give me an idea of feel, rather than how people should dance – that’s their business. And if I think it’s great, I put it in my ‘should play’ folder.
I listen to my music.
I have a really shitty memory, so I have to go back through my expanding collection to remind myself about what songs sound like. I move them around in my ‘should play’, ‘favourite’, and ‘maybe Event Name’ folders when I’m preparing for a set.
I practice combining them in real time, as though I’m actually DJing.
This is the most important one.
I make sure I know how to use my computer, and I keep my system really simple. I don’t want anything to stop me looking at the floor. So I practice with my gear, and I get rid of the fancy software.
I get good noise-cancelling ear phones that won’t give me ear-itch.
These days I don’t do this preparation stuff as much as I should. I don’t listen to music enough. Teaching has changed some of my ideas about music: teaching doesn’t make you a good DJ, I’m afraid. You tend to pre-select for song without long intros (social dancers are fine with intros and outros), you prioritise ‘simpler’ songs for class demos and work (unless you’re looking at un-simple ideas in music for your class), and you’re more conscious of tempo. You also try to find a variety of classic swing styles for teaching lindy hop, because that’s part of a class: teaching people about the music.
DJing is not like selecting teaching music.
Don’t be a Dick.
I’ve heard a handful of DJs say things like this in the past year: “I like to challenge the dancers,” “I want to educate them [the dancers],” “I want them to hear things they never usually hear.” That last one was from a visiting DJ who’d never played in that Australian city before.
Total dicks, all of them. And all men.
I do not ever go into a set with an agenda. That is fucked up. Don’t go out there to ‘educate’, don’t go out there to ‘blow people’s minds’. Don’t assume your audience are plebs living in hicksville who’ve never heard jazz (that one happens a bit when American DJs come to Australia. Those DJs usually suck balls).
Go out there ready to be what the dancers need, right then. Be their friend.
While I’m DJing, my only rule or ‘agenda’ is:
MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO HAVE FUN
That’s it. That’s all I plan.
That is 100% of my job. To make it easy for people to have fun. I don’t make them have fun; they do that themselves. ‘Challenge dancers?’ Fuck that noise. The opposite is my job: make it really easy for them to have fun. Whether they want to show off, to chillax, to go like the clappers, or whatevs.
My other only rule is:
OFFER PEOPLE REGULAR INVITATIONS TO DANCE
I try to offer people regular ‘ins’ to the dance floor. Regular chances to get on the floor. Sometimes that means playing something slower tempoed. Sometimes it’s a familiar song. Sometimes it’s less manic, more relaxed song. Sometimes it’s a crazy fun uptempo song everyone knows. Whatever. I want to give people a chance to invite someone onto the floor, whether it’s a teacher, a noob, that person they love, their favourite dance partner, or Chaz Young.
I know DJs who’d die before playing Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’.
But for me, it’s the ultimate invitation to dance. It’s slow. It has a nice walking bass line. It has a lovely vocal about a lover who wants you because you’re you. But it also has interesting changes in timing, it has really satisfying phrasing, and it’s fun to dance to. New dancers have never heard it before. Experienced dancers know it’s ‘safe’ for asking a noob to dance.
Most of these ‘invitations to dance’ songs are medium tempo favourites, but not all. Mostly, I try to make them really easy to dance to – a song that’ll get those people who’ve been standing on the sidelines onto the floor. Wether they’re tired, old, young, unfit, exhausted, overstimulated or Chaz Young. I want them to feel brave enough to ask someone to dance. I want to make it easy for them to have fun. And I like to drop these in regularly, so people who like to talk a lot can step in and out of the dance floor occasionally.
I often like to follow these songs with something a little more. Maybe it’s faster, maybe it’s more exciting, maybe it’s unfamiliar. But it’s not a huge change (because that would feel like a betrayal – I just got them out there! They’ll probably dance two songs with this person, so let’s make this one good too!).
After that, I might change it up completely.
HOW do I start a set?
But I don’t go in there planning a set like this. I don’t think ‘Ok, this is my invitation to dance song, this is my challenge song, I’ll play them in these orders.’ I go in there thinking ‘Did you do a wee, DJ? Do you have your power cord? What is the previous DJ playing now? Stop, spend a bit of time looking at the room and observing what they’re doing and feeling.’ And then I think ‘Aw fuck, go do another wee anyway. Just in case.’
I get quite nervous before DJing, particularly for my first set of a weekend, so I like a few sets over the event. And to do a few wees before my set (not only because it’s a chance to sit down in peace and quiet and get it together; mostly because one time I got locked in the stall mid-set, and I’ve never recovered). And I need to be gentle with myself before I start DJing. No caffeine or sugar (it makes me stressy). I like to walk around the room before I DJ, not dancing, but just checking out the vibe, a bit separate to the dancing vibe. Are people grumpy? Happy? Tired? Manic? Frustrated? How do they respond to the DJ’s music? Enthusiastically? Dancing just because they want to dance?
I often dread following a really good DJ, because I just don’t feel I’m terribly good at clever DJing: I tend to just go for the fun. So if the DJ before me has already played all the crazy fun, I’m going to have to work harder. And that’s where I can really suck.
I also like to have a look and listen to my music while I watch the crowd. Does this song’s feel match their vibe?
What has the DJ before me played? Avoid those songs. But get an idea of the vibe they’ve had going on before. It really helps if I’ve been dancing during the night.
Incidentally, I don’t think you can be a great DJ if you don’t dance the dance you’re DJing for. So I am rubbish at blues DJing these days. And I try to dance to all the tempos, so I know what ‘fast’ feels like. The DJs I really admire do that – they social dance a lot, to all tempos, and they’re continually working on their own dancing, deepening their physical understanding of jazz.
But I like to start with a nice song that either starts mediumenergy and builds, or comes in with a bang. I tend to start with something like Basie or Hamp, or otherwise pretty meat and potatoes. HELLO PARTY HAM IS HERE! LET’S JUMP AROUND!
Unless I’m the first DJ of the late night, then I start with a completely different vibe.
So as you can see, I have strategies. But these strategies aren’t ‘rules’. They’re just ways of applying my knowledge of my music to what I see happening on the floor.
Make it easy for EVERYONE to have fun.
Everyone. Not just the rock stars and wannabe-rockstar cliques hugging the stage at the front of the room. They don’t really care what you play – they just want you to make them look good and play songs they like.
I play to everyone in the room, especially the middle 2/3 of the dance floor. That’s the bulk of the crowd. They come early, they leave last, and they dance a LOT with LOTS of people. The rockstarwannabes only dance with a small pool of their besties, and they have limited dance skills – they can only dance with their besties to ‘cool’ songs. I like to pitch to the bulk of the room. And as a DJ friend taught me, it’s good to play to people who aren’t dancing yet as well.
Having a full floor is my base line, rather than a mark of a successful set. A successful set is where the whole room loses its collective shit. Where they stay on the dance floor all night and occasionally run up to shout at you, all sweaty-faced, with their hair stuck to their cheeks and foreheads, and kind of wild-eyed and sweaty. They’ve forgotten to change their shirt. They’re dehydrated. They shout loud, incoherent stuff. Both up at the DJ and to each other on the dance floor. They just run and grab partners and leap back onto the floor.
I’m actually ok with an empty floor occasionally. Somewhere like Herrang, where it’s always overcrowded, a momentarily clear floor can be a good thing. Especially if it’s fast and exciting. You can follow up with an invitation to dance that capitalises on that high energy.
I usually spend the first part of a set letting dancers know they can trust me. I don’t play any shit songs. I don’t play wacked out songs that change tempo mid-way through*. Once they know I can be trusted, I play more risky stuff. I play stuff with the odd intros, because I know they know that I won’t play some piece of shit hip hop whatevs.
While I’m DJing I use my notes about energy and style to search my collection – eg I think ‘ok, they’re buggered, we need to back it off a bit tempo and energy wise. I need something mediumenergy and in the 150bpm range’ so I search for ‘mediumenergy’ and then arrange by bpm. Then I scroll through, listening to the song playing over the speakers, and looking for something that will meet these criteria and suits the feel and style of the song that’s playing. If I’m lucky a new song idea comes to me and I don’t need to search – I think ‘GOODMAN! NOW!’ and then I search through my Goodman stuff for something in a tempo range and energy style. Or I just look for a specific song.
I have to preview songs, because I have a shit memory. But I also like to listen to a song with one ear in the headphones, and one ear in the room, to see how the two songs sound next to each other. I want a nice, comfortable transition. Unless I want to shake things up (but that is a risky proposition).
Mostly, I’m trying to work a tempo wave (so they don’t die of exhaustion), and an energy wave (so they don’t die of overexcitement). I tend to work this wave with my attention 100% on the crowd, and how they look and feel. Are they physically tired? Are they emotionally tired? If it’s the former, drop the tempo. If it’s the latter, back off the NT Basie wall of sound and get some tinkly Goodman small group in there.
I do like to aim to get them worked up, so I like to get the energy really freaking high during a set. But people can’t sustain that, emotionally, for a terribly long time. Just like a panic attack only lasts about 15 minutes max (eg 5 x 3minute songs), I find the emotional highs have to come and go. Like waves. So while I build a single wave during a whole set (a tide if you will), that tide is comprised of smaller waves, working the energy up and down in steps. But once you get to about an hour, you kind of have to reset a bit and start again. Or else it’s a bit boring.
And of course, it depends on the crowd. Really experienced lindy hoppers in good physical condition at an exchange on the main night of the event (eg Saturday of a weekend) want to PARTY, so they make it easy for you: bring the adrenaline, and they’re into it. But if it’s day 5 of a 7 day event, perhaps they want something a bit more cerebral? Some Kirby small group, perhaps?
My big rules:
If I try to pre-empt the crowd, I will DJ to an agenda and fuck up.
Don’t DJ to an imaginary crowd that you’ve planned out before the set. DJ to the people right there in the room.
Like Mona says: practice practice practice, then get out there on the social floor and just enjoy yourself. Go for the feels.
*I’m surprised by how many dancers don’t realise that most tempo changes – from slow to fast – are usually where the tempo doubles. So you can just keep dancing at the same speed, except you’ll be dancing half time when the music gets faster. So be cool, yo. And like an old timer: half time is way radical awesome doods.
Hey, dance event organisers and teachers!
Feeling pretty bloody awful about sexual harassment? You’re not alone. Want to _do_ something? You can!
Do you have your sexual harassment and OH&S policies and strategies up and working? No? It’s not that hard. And it makes you feel really good and powerful. Like you’re really making a difference and being the boss of jazz.
You don’t need to worry about ‘being a downer’ by addressing these issues. Making plans, training up, and then acting on them will make you and your peeps happier, healthier, and fully legit awesome.
If you want to talk about how we’re going about doing things with Swing Dance Sydney, with the events we run, and in working with other organisers – drop me a line! Email me on sam at dogpossum at dogpossum dot org
– A code of conduct (with helpful tips on how not to assault/harass someone);
– Explicit tips for not being a poop to other dancers in our FAQ:
– Response strategies for our volunteers, managers, and organisers (getting hassled at the door? Tag in your ninja-like event manager! Call the cops!);
– In-class teaching strategies for tooling up students with mad harassment-destroying skills, and getting teachers fighting fit for dealing with dodgy behaviour;
– Super powers: saying NO and STOP with confidence and pride, being cool when someone knocks you back for a dance. Like GUNS;
– Guidelines for teachers who work with us (both weekly and for big weekends): we are looking out for YOU;
– Strategies for teaching musicians how not to be pervs, and how to be forces for jazz GOOD (rock on super-powered musos!);
– Draft agreements for DJs, teachers, bands, and organisers to lay out the rules, and remind them that we all deserve safety and wellness;
– Event management rules to reduce stress, and increase joy (including the 5 minute time out rule; knowing your limits; work with a buddy; running events should be fun; listen first, talk second; speak slowly and clearly into the microphone, and be sure to point out where the toilets are).
– And most importantly: the ability to improvise, innovate, and change our strategies. Because we are jazz dancers, and that is what we DO.
Honestly, maintain the rage, but also get into the agitate-educate-organise side of things. If learning the Big Apple makes you feel powerful, imagine what learning to kick a sexual harasser out of a venue can do for you. If we’re a community of dancers, then we got to look out for each other. Step up.
Something I added to this post on fb:
Oh, and if you are running teeny tiny events or classes, and not sure you’re ‘ready’ or ‘big enough’ to tackle these issues? NO way! You’re in the perfect position to get started on this. Just like we start learning to social dance right from our first classes, you can learn to develop a good, solid oh&s policy/process with just your weekly casual practice session, or your irregular DJed party night. You’re totally in a great position to pwn this stuff.
[edit 2]And I also think it’s important to think about the things that you can do if you’re not an organiser. Punters are powerful. Organisers make money from events, they garner status and respect. Don’t buy any of that ‘I’m just doing this for the community’ bullshit. That is fucked up martyr bullshit. YOU are the community, and organisers have a duty of care to provide as safe an event as possible. So call them on it!
1. Have a look at the event’s website. Do they have a code of conduct? No? Ask them publicly on their facebook page where it is. Public questions are important, because it says “Hey, this is important to me.”
2. Most of the dance code of conducts I’ve read are completely token and useless. No practical tips, no definitions of harassment. If you read a code of conduct and you’re left with any questions, it’s not good enough. And there’s a code of conduct, but no information about what to do if you need help, ask a public question on the facebook page.
3. If they have a code of conduct but some sort of vague line like ‘see one of our staff’ (rather than ‘speak to Person, contact a door person (who will speak to Person), then you should ask a question like ‘How do I know who can help me? Will they wear a name badge? What happens after I tell them?”
4. If you are volunteering at an event, do you know what to do if someone comes to you saying they need help? Is there a written handbook or emergency process? Who is your point of contact? What do you do if there’s an accident? When do you call the cops or an ambulance? You should know this information before the event starts.
5. Check in again after a week or two. Still no response/code/strategy? Ask again. Be a pebble in their shoe. A little big of niggling can keep you and friends safe, and it can make it clear you mean business.
6. And if you want to say not to a dance/drink/whatevs, just say “No thank you” and leave it at that. If someone says “No thank you” when you ask them to dance, say “No worries” and move on. If you aren’t ok with people not wanting to dance with you, you haven’t grasped the fundamentals of _social_ dancing. No one is obliged to dance with you.
You are watching the room all the time, right (RIGHT?!)? That puts you in a super powerful position for keeping an eye on creepers and dodgy behaviour.
But you’re also stuck at a desk with a computer. Virtually every time I’ve DJed at a big event, some random dickface bloke has hassled me. I’ve been groped by sound guys, hit on by punters, hassled by dickhead dancers. I’ve had dancers take photos of my computer screen without permission, random men (they’re always men) have touched my computer and scrolled through my sets. Most recently I was hassled by some fuckwit dancer from Canberra while I was DJing at SLX. If I could remember who he was, I’d name and shame.
This shit is happening to all of us. If it’s happening to me – who’s pretty darn intimidating – you can be sure worse things are happening to your less scary friends. You need to step up and speak out for them. And for yourself.
Statistically, one of you reading this facebook comment is a harasser or offender. We DJs are WATCHING you. The door staff saw you come in, they took note of your vibe. They’re watching you too. And if you see me in the room, you can be damn sure I’m going to call you on bullshit if I see it. Have done before, will do again.
It’s important that organisers see that we take this seriously, and that your attendance will depend on how safe you and your friends feel at an event. If you don’t raise the issue, organisers won’t do anything about it.
Volunteers are particularly powerful, because events simply can’t work without masses of free labour. So you can really make a difference.
Organisers: if people are asking you these questions, it means you’re not doing a good enough job. So don’t get narky, get ON it.
Soz this post is a bit long and jumbly. I’m a bit busy atm, but I want to get this down fast, while I’m thinking about it.
Key points: I think the ‘conversation’ metaphor for lindy hop partnership is boring and limited. I think turn taking is boring. Here, in this post, I use some ILHC 2015 jack and jill videos to talk about how leads and follows can use layers of rhythm to move beyond call and response. Rhythm is about timing, and that means more than just how many times and in what order your foot taps the floor. It’s about how you use your whole body, and how you do that in connection with another person. This is how lindy hop is not like tap dance.
I have problems with using the image of ‘conversation’ as a metaphor for lindy hop and improvisation. Because most people use the word ‘conversation’ to mean formal turn taking. You speak, then I speak. But this is a highly gendered, and quite formal way of talking. It’s how we’d talk in a formal debate, or on tv. Or if we were middle class men at a dinner party. But jazz dance is vernacular dance, so is should look the way a real conversation sounds. A conversation between women. There should be interruptions, there should be layers of talk and idea, there should be shouting and quiet moments of empathy. All working together in collaborative meaning making. I’ve written a lot about language and gender here on this blog and elsewhere. There are some useful references in this post. Basically, I think we need to address the way men and women ‘do’ conversation and group talk. There are clear, documented differences in the way men talk in groups, women talk in groups, how mixed gendered groups talk, and how same-gendered groups talk. This is directly applicable to discussions about vernacular dance. I am not the first to say that vernacular dance is an embodiment of vernacular music, nor am I the first to say that vernacular music is pretty much vernacular talk in action.
Let’s have a little look at the ILHC jack and jill videos.
So far I’ve only watched about three – Laura and Remy, Laura and Skye, Jo and Peter. I’ve been seriously fucking irritated by the way both couples are introduced men-first, and the MC makes a joke about the male dancer only. But my sample size is too small. Hopefully this pattern does not continue with the rest of the MCing.
The dancing is fantastic.
I’ve only watched each video once so far, this morning.
Watching Laura and Skye, I had some issues.
It feels a bit like a dance fight. As though Laura is trying to solo dance while she lindy hops. I’ve got no issue with that – it’s a totally legit approach. But I do feel as though she’s trying desperately to fit in her improvisation where ever and where ever she can. I know that I do this when I follow. Or did, until I started leading more. And boy, she is fully legit: she is a freaking athlete of awesome. But I don’t like the way this dance looks. I feel as though they’re not dancing together. I want Laura to:
– chill and take some time to get on the same page as Skye, at the very basic level of finding a common sense of timing or bounce. She may not be a bouncy dancer (ie she mightn’t be down with using ‘pulse’), and that’s cool, but when you’re in a jack and jill (or social dancing), you should find a common ground with your partner. I can see Skye looking to make that most basic level of connection (ie how do you use the beat and the floor), but it’s just not working.
– chill and work within the shapes and energy Skye is giving. Skye is both a very clear and leading lead (ie he isn’t the ‘boss’, but he’s very definitely setting the shapes and tone for the dance), and a very accommodating, collaborative lead. I like his dancing, because I like leads to lead.
That’s how lindy hop works: one of us is making bigger structural decisions about what moves and shapes we’ll do; one of us is making those moves and shapes work, and adding texture and definition. A good lead isn’t just ‘calling’ the steps and having the follow ‘respond’. A good lead is working with what the follow is doing and how they move and feel the music. A good lead isn’t following; this isn’t like following. It’s about listening and building on what the follow is doing. Building in unexpected things. Just like a very good lead uses the floor and ‘floor craft’ to build a dance that isn’t just responding to obstacles on the dance floor, but incorporating them in a creative way to make new things. Floor craft is craft; it’s not just damage control. It’s creative and improvisational art in itself. It’s real social dancing.
Anyhow, I feel as though Laura is desperately stealing every moment she can to squash in some sort of flourish extra bit of whatevs.
In contrast, Jo works with her partner, and what he’s doing. Peter is quite a ‘strong’ and assertive lead. I don’t mean ‘strong’ as in ‘manhandling his partner around the floor’, I mean ‘strong’ as in having a clear personality and vision for the dance. I think that you need to have this in lindy hop. This isn’t a dance for introverts. If you’re dancing old school style, both the lead and follow are bringing clear, confident personalities. The leads are very clear and strong. The follows are equally clear and strong. Again, I don’t mean in terms of physical strength (though that can be involved). I mean in terms of attitude and confidence. I think Peter brings some of that. And Jo brings that as well – she is the Norma Miller to balance Frankie Manning. Not in terms of dancing style, but in terms of self confidence and willingness to clearly be present in the dance. Neither Frankie nor Norma would quietly coddle their partner. They’d both step up and just assume their partner was going to bring it too. They’d have confidence in their partner’s ability to bring the shit.
I think this is the main problem I have with what’s happening with Laura and Skye. I feel as though she doesn’t trust Skye enough to build in responses to her dancing, to work with her. I know I do this too, with leads who don’t listen to me when I’m following. I feel as though I have to physically force my own voice into the conversation. Perhaps Laura’s been dancing with some overly domineering leads lately? I wouldn’t know. But I think that follows should trust the lead to listen to them.
When I watch Jo and Peter, I see Jo taking time to figure out what Peter’s doing, and how he feels and how he’s feeling the music. And he does the same with her, but at the same time, he initiates the steps – he takes the initiative. That’s the definition of leading, right? Going first? But once Jo has figured out this common ground, she builds in her own responses. They don’t interrupt what Peter has planned; they work within the structure he’s building. And he pays attention to that.
All this is all well and good. I think though, that a lot of dancers stop at this point. They see this to-and-fro as formal turn taking. Just like in that board meeting, or at a formal dinner party. Where speakers take turn saying things. Calling and responding. But I don’t think this is a properly vernacular discourse. I think this is very much an anglo-celtic middle class* heteronormative patriarchal structure. I think we should remember that this is jazz dance. Let’s think about jazz in New Orleans, before swing went solidly mainstream. We can hear multiple instruments improvising at the same time at various points throughout the song. The melody is still there. The structure of the song is still stable, if not formulaic. In fact, the structure is so formulaic it’s predictable. Which is essential if you’re improvising, right? You all need to be able to predict where the structure and melody will go, so you know when to come in and go out. But the improvisation is unpredictable. Yet harmonious. Except when it’s deliberately not.
Both couples are amazing dancers, physically amazing with stunning reflexes and control of their bodies, a deep understanding of the music they’re dancing to, and a thorough understanding of leading and following. This is some shit hot dancing. But it doesn’t quite feel like jazz to me. It doesn’t feel like vernacular jazz dance. It needs a little more chaos. It needs more interruption, more polyphony, more layers of rhythm. Those layers and interruptions can’t be interruptions for the sake of saying something. They need to be responses and interactions. And both speakers should be building those responses in. Sometimes when a group of women friends are talking, they are interrupting continually. They’re shouting “YES!” and “OMG NO!” in response to something their friend is saying. And in a group, there may be two people speaking at once, but all of the group is keeping track of everything everyone is saying at once, so they’re having parallel but interactive conversations. This is what happens in jazz. Many people speak at once, there’s interruption, and it’s rowdy. But everyone is still ‘with’ it, and aware of what other people are saying and doing. They know when to go still and silent. They know when to shout out or laugh or talk. Just as in a jazz band.
I want to see more of this in lindy hop.
In fact, this was something that came up in the Harlem Roots stream in Herrang this year, and in the Frankie stream last year. The teachers who were strongest proponents of this approach were Asa and Daniel, Jenny and Rickard, and Ramona (who I saw take this to her teaching with Remy). Asa and Daniel articulated it most clearly: leads, each ‘lead’ is only a suggestion. Do not ‘demand’ your follow dance everything you ask. As Ramona puts it: follows, you have a responsibility to look after the beat, and to look after your own rhythm too. To paraphrase her, it’s not ok to ‘just follow’ (as if you could anyway). Follows have a responsibility to feed energy into the dance through keeping time, and through bringing rhythm in a clear, coherent way. We are partners, here.
This is exciting, because when follows realise the leads are listening, and aren’t demanding, they become more confident. If you move away from social dancing as a series of perfectly executed steps with rhythms performed in unison, lindy hop becomes more like jazz. You can have layers of rhythm, and it’s ok. Leads don’t have to ‘lead’ every rhythm with a complex combination of body lead, weight change, and so on. The physical connection between partners can become at once more relaxed (we don’t need to see the follow’s right biceps pop out), and more solid (the lead’s right arm around the follow becomes more important, and the follow engages with that through their back and torso). And you have to LOOK at your partner a whole lot more.
What we found in practice in Herrang, was that leads on the whole used much simpler moves. Swing outs. Circles. Under arm turns. Time in open without touching, or touching. Promenade. Closed position. Even charleston became a bit too complex. These simple shapes allowed us to dance in more interesting ways, and to dance with anyone to any tempo. Because the ‘interest’ came in how you executed these steps. Your step step triple step could become a more complicated (or simple!) rhythm step. And you and your partner needn’t do the same rhythm simultaneously. In fact, you usually didn’t, and when you did, it was a happy coincidence.
The trick then becomes how to dance rhythms that are open to complementary rhythms. A bit like in musical improvisation: you should be in the right key and time signature, so you don’t get dischord, and you can stay in time with everyone else. At Herrang, each night when we were social dancing, when we danced with this rhythmic variation and polychromatic approach, we had to first find a shared time signature – we HAD to have a shared bounce or sense of time. And it was ESSENTIAL that both partners, lead and follow, maintained that sense of time. Both partners must bounce, or be able to move in and out of bouncing in time. It’s both a physical and visual way of staying ‘in time’ with your partner. Musicians don’t need to physically bounce, and lindy hoppers needn’t either, but you must always have an awareness of the timing, and bouncing is fun. The musicians mightn’t bounce, but the music does, and dancers are the music made visible.
The wonderful part of this approach is that anyone can do it. Total beginner dancers can find the beat and keep it.
Where is the ‘key’ in this? I think that the key is the pitch of your dancing. Or the ‘feel’. And you figure it out together. It’s a kind of shared sense of how you will dance together. And you need that moment in closed position at the beginning of the dance to find that shared sense of pitch before you begin dancing.
When I watch Laura and Skye, I feel as though Skye immediately sets out how and who he is, before they even begin. But that Laura doesn’t do that straight away, she doesn’t feel confident enough, so she feels she has to do it over and over again by stealing moments to add her notes. In contrast, Jo and Peter do find this common time and common key, but then there’s still those moments of turn taking, rather than polyrhythm. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fantastic. It’s definitely not a matter of both leads being too autocratic or domineering. I think that it’s more that the follows could use the leads’ clearness and stable ‘leading’ in a different way.
Ok, let’s look at a very clear and simple example of what I mean by layers of rhythm and mutual, collaborative meaning making.
This is a nice example because it is a class recap, not social dancing, so they are very clearly demonstrating the concepts. In a social setting, this stuff often isn’t this simple. Particularly when you see very good dancers doing it. And I want to make it clear: ‘good’ can be anyone. The skill you really need to pull this off is social skills: communication.
A few simple examples:
0.10 Asa initiates a break step, and Daniel doesn’t do it perfectly in time with her. He doesn’t yank her into stillness, he doesn’t force her to do something else, he doesn’t try to sync up with her. He lets himself be still (which gives her a contrasting stillnes to work with), and then he joins in with the stomp off on ‘and 8’. This little moment works because they share a sense of timing. He’s not ‘bouncing’ hugely and visibly, but his core is engaged, his arms are relaxed, and he clearly shares the timing with her. He is listening, and yet prepared, so when it comes to the end of the 8 he’s ready with the stomp off.
More interestingly, they have a shared sense of jazz conventions: they both know where 8 is, they know that a stomp off is a conventional way to end an 8 (or begin a move – why is 8 the end of a move, instead of the preparation for the next!? It needn’t be!), and they both ‘get back together’ for the final 8 of the phrase. Asa pulls out her rhythm in the penultimate 8 of the phrase, then clearly listens to Daniel as he ‘finishes’ the phrase with a simple circle, and a synchronised rhythm.
It gets better. There is a temptation in choreographing and dancing to let the phrases be unbreachable barriers. You do feel as though you have to ‘finish’ a move at the end of a phrase, then start something new for the next one. Similarly, we often feel we need to ‘start’ on 1. But Frankie didn’t start on 1 all the time – he started where the music said start. If you’ve done the ‘Frankie 89’ choreography, danced to ‘Wednesday Night Hop’, it starts on 7. Because that’s where the music says start.
When we watch Asa and Daniel in this little section of the song, they respond to what’s happening in the beat and the phrasing, but they work across the phrases by continuing jig walks from the last 8 to the first of the next phrase. But the timing of the step changes in the next phrase.
Right here, we see some really complex rhythm work happening, passed back and forth between the lead and follow. It looks and feels a bit like the shouty chorus in a nola jazz song: lots of layers of rhythm and sound. But it all works because both partners share a sense of timing and ‘pitch’.
But things level up.
At 0.30 they dance in side by side, but both dancing completely different rhythms. They don’t sync up again until about 0.41. But they maintain connection. Note how Daniel’s arm around Asa’s back stays connected, but is less intense and demanding. He allows her physical space, but also space in the connection so his body doesn’t demand she dance the same rhythm as him. So they both understand how the points of physical connection allow partners to hear and share where a partner’s weight is (and what the rhythm is – you feel this through the way muscles engage in your partners’ body, a relaxed, rubbery connection clears the line so you can ‘hear’ this, but it all often happens at a subconscious level – you just feel and respond), but they both also understand that you don’t have to be in a state of intense connection all the time. You can be listening and dancing, but not synced up. And then after this, Daniel initiates a different move, and asks for more connection from Asa, and she agrees, and they work the same rhythm together.
If you listen to the music, it’s building in intensity – the melody introduced earlier is emphasised, the little tinkles are joined by a more intense brass section.
The phrasing is important, but it’s not everything.
And, then, when we get to 0.54, we get a very familiar couple of moves: a curl (or around the world) and then points. It happens at a very climactic moment in the music. It’s as though all that rhythmic play before culminates in a couple of 8s of very structured, historic, authoritative movement. Finally, synchronised rhythm. This is the money shot. But then it ends with both partners varying the shapes and energy – so it’s not perfectly synchronised after all. I think this part makes it most clear, and it clearly identifies the sort of revivalist project I want to be involved in.
My revivalist project:
learn and preserve historic steps
understand and practice the values of historic jazz dance: improvisation and jazz music
innovate, change, and bring your own style and personality: polyrhythms and improvisation within musical structure, and with reference to historical steps or a ‘canon’ of authoritative steps
-> in this way we can both recognise and preserve the history of this dance, and yet do something new and innovative
=> in this way we embody the tension of vernacular dance: be in the past, the present and the future at once; embody mindfulness, but also be intellectually active and predictive; innovate and change, but preserve and respect.
You can see here how ‘musicality’ is a complicated thing. It’s about understanding tempo, timing, phrasing, and syncopation. But it’s also about understanding the way an arrangement works across phrases, how different instruments contribute as individuals and as groups and so on. If you allow this sort of polyrhythm work to happen in a dance, you invite the music in.
As we say to our students, the most important parts of lindy hop are taking care of the music, and taking care of our partner.
One of the most obvious results of this approach to lindy hop that I have noticed, is that partners give each other more attention. You HAVE to! Because anything can happen! I have noticed that partners look at each other more, and interact more. Frankie has been telling us this all long: you are in love for three minutes! This is the queen of the world! Doods: YOUR PARTNER IS IMPORTANT. They’re not there to provide/execute a perfect sequences of steps and moves. They are there to be there with you. Whether your dance is a lovely sequence of simple ‘basic’ rhythms, or a storm of rhythm.
I hope you’ve already figured out that this approach is far more than just the formal turn taking of a ‘conversation’ between colleagues. It’s much, much more than ‘I do a variation, you do a variation’. That’s boring. That’s easy. That’s not feminist, either. That’s equality. I don’t want equality. I don’t want to be ‘equal’ or have ‘the same’ as my partner. I want us both to bring what we each have and want in that moment, and I want a shifting, changing relationship. Or else it is TOO BORING.
So how do you level up this approach? In the Harlem Roots track at Herrang, I was in the advanced stream, and after the first day I asked myself: “Is that it?” because we had basically done the same stuff as last year in the mixed level Frankie track. This ‘stuff’ was: listen to your partner, leads don’t demand follows do as you ask; leads expect and allow for follows changing what you are dancing. Follows: bring your shit; you’re not passive in this dance, be present. Stuff we’d all done last year. Yes, it was fun, and it had blown my mind last year, but I wanted more. I figured I’d mastered this.**
I thought that this was just the basic, beginner level stuff. Surely we’d be doing something harder and more challenging in the advanced stream? But then I figured it out: it really is this simple. This is how we play lindy hop. As Lennart says, lindy hop is really a very simple dance. What makes it challenging is what you bring to the dance. Having top shelf physical skills makes you more present. Having a very good understanding of jazz music makes you more present. But because the game is this simple – listen, respond, talk, play – anyone can play. You can have an excellent dance with anyone, so long as they are present and using this approach. Beginner, old timer, international teacher – they’re all great dance partners in this game.
And when I figured this out, it was like I’d been given the best present ever. I got over myself and my ‘is this all there is?’ and I started playing properly. Tempo isn’t an issue, because you don’t have to execute a series of perfect swing outs with the step step triple step rhythm. You can do ANYTHING. I think this is where we have to really LISTEN when we hear old timers say young lindy hoppers don’t do enough half time at higher tempos. The old timers aren’t saying ‘dance half time when it gets fast’, they’re saying ‘stop following these arbitrary rules about how you dance, and start playing with timing and with your partner.’
Rhythm is the best fucking fun ever. And this is why we have to learn to dance on our own. It’s coming at things the wrong way to say ‘you should learn to solo dance to improve your lindy hop’. It’s more that we learn to dance on our own, so that we learn who we are, and what we want to bring to the dance. We develop the skills to contribute to the dance. A musician learns to play their instrument so they can play in a band. I can dance on my own all the time, and that’s great. But it’s dancing and improvising in a band, or in a partnership, that makes it really fun. I think it’s because humans are both highly social, and also really good at pattern matching and problem solving. Improvised jazz music is immensely satisfying and intensely challenging. It ticks our boxes. For me, it grounds me, utterly. I have to be present, utterly and completely present in the moment if I want to lindy hop like this. I can’t be thinking about other things, or wondering about my next dance. I have to be right there with that partner. All the time. They have to be the centre of my world for 3 minutes.
And best of all, this game will never be over. Each dance step or rhythm break I learn becomes another pencil in my pencil case. Each dance is as important as each class, as I learn new things with each partner or teacher or class.
To sum up, I guess I should just show you a video of two dancers doing some mad shit. In this video Ramona and Nick show, in a very simple, obvious way, how you can do both turn taking and layers of rhythm. But, in a demonstration of much more skilled dancing, they move beyond this, building up interest. Best of all, we see how a very good follow can work within a set framework or structure from a clear lead, to build trust on his part, but also to innovate and bring the shit on her part.
They begin (and continue) with clear moments of taking turns with the rhythm, and then doing a little moment of layers of unsynchronised rhythm. This is a clear and simple articulation of what the music is doing.
They then use this musical theme in their broader body movement – a series of pass bys/turns/swingouts where Mona does most of the turns, with moments of extended stretch to match the longer notes in the melody, culminating in Nick doing a couple of tight spins on the spot. It’s excellently simple and effective. But if they’d continued the dance like that, we’d have died of boredom. But they level up.
As the music moves into the next section, they change up how they take turns, and they add more moments of layered rhythm. I think that Ramona is utterly fantastic in these moments. I really, really like the way she responds to Nicks’ smoother less bouncy approach to timing, but doesn’t compromise her own solid pulse or employment and articulation of the beat. She uses gorgeous moments of extended stretch and timing, but also quicker, more concentrated and intense smaller movements.
Nick is initiating these to a certain extent, but it’s as though Mona takes these ideas and this broader framework, and then exaggerates or extends or highlights them. In this way she is working within his clear, solid frame work (ie following a leader), but she does not compromise her own rhythmic variations, nor the way she actually uses her body.
As an example, she takes extended, stretched moments in open, but because she’s a physical machine, she can also respond quickly when she needs to, because she understands how to use graduated modes of engagement. To the audience, this gives us moments of calm and rest to contrast with the intensity. Her body seems calm and restful (because it is – she uses only the muscles she needs), but it can also seem intense and excited (when she engages more muscles in graduated ways, moves faster, changes her timing). I think this is the clearest difference between her dancing and Laura G’s. Laura always seems ON; I’d like to see more gradations of energy, and hence a more textured approach to timing and rhythm.
*middle class: I think most Americans use this term in a different way to we use it here in Australia. What I would term the ‘working class’ is closer to what the Americans call the middle class. So middle class in my discussion here, means having a degree of disposable income, owning a home (with a mortgage), probably tertiary educated (though not necessarily so), having a stable income, living above the poverty line, having a degree of privilege that all this accords. Working class, though, means that you are perhaps struggling more to make ends meet, though you can put food on the table, and pay your bills. Just.
**Oh, the arrogance of the intermediate dancer. I got served, that’s for sure.
I’ve decided a code of conduct is essential for dance events. But they can’t be randomly copied documents of meaningless. You have to really mean what you say. And be prepared to act on this code. I’ve finally put together a code of conduct and am working on specific response strategies. You can read a draft version of it here on google docs. I am interested in your comments (though you’ll need to add them as comments to this post, not directly into that google document, because I don’t have time to moderate one million sites).
I’ve also started formalising and compiling my various workers’ agreements. I’ve been using these for years, though each copy has a slightly different form, as it is a negotiated agreement including the worker’s preferences and stipulations. This is important: this is an agreement, not a contract (it’s not legally binding!), so you must have consensus between all parties.
There are, of course, plenty of other relationships that require contracts or agreements – and these above should technically be covered by contracts rather than agreements – and you can find templates for them on the Arts Law Centre of Australia website. Note, you must pay for these.
A friend added an interesting comment to my post about this on facebook:
Really appreciate you keeping us all accountable Sam. I think Codes of Conduct are great but as you say, they’re useless if people don’t know how to take action with them.
This person has right-on politics, so I want to start here. Who is accountable for our actions? Are we only responsible for ourselves and what we do and think? Are we only responsible for the people ‘below’ us in a power structure? Are we responsible for each other – all of us? Are men responsible for the actions of other men, or just for their own? Is sisterhood an important idea, that women are accountable for the safety and actions of each other?
It’s a tricky one. I personally feel that I have a responsibility to look out for the safety of other women and girls. That’s where I start. I’ll also call out people who make racist/sexist/ist jokes. That’s my job, that’s one of the responsibilities of privilege (for me). To speak up.
So why don’t men call other men out on their behaviour? Why am I the one who’s telling men to stop pulling air steps at social dances? Why aren’t men doing this? Why did that male teacher try to discourage me from talking about and responding to sexual harassment by insisting that women harass too? What makes men feel like this isn’t their job too? Maybe they just don’t realise how powerful they are. Maybe they really don’t realise how much ‘safer’ patriarchy makes them.
Maybe this is a symptom of liberal individualism. This idea that we are own bosses, and we all need to work harder, and if we are poor or vulnerable, it’s our own fault for not working hard? Maybe this is the most important part of feminism: collectivism. Socialism. Caring about other people. Doing things for them and with them when we can.
I dunno. Aren’t you a lindy hopper? Isn’t the whole point of what we do to be awesome in partnership with other people?
I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t actually like the idea of one person making other people accountable for their actions; I don’t want to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. The thing that bothers me most about codes of conduct is that we all KNOW these things are totally not ok, and yet we still do them! And we don’t call other people out on their behaviour! So rather than deconstructing this top-down power dynamic, we reproduce it with a code of conduct, which we assume the ‘management’ or ‘powerful’ will enforce.
What I’d like to see is a) more women feeling powerful and in control of their lives and bodies, b) more men calling other men out on their behaviour – it’s not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue!, and c) more men regulating their OWN behaviour, and questioning their own assumptions about who and what they are entitled to do with their own and other people’s bodies.
But how do you do all that in the _context_ of patriarchy? The commodification of dance in formal dance classes doesn’t help, as it reinforces this power structure. …I guess that’s why I think you can’t talk about responding to s.h. without acting to prevent it with broader cultural change. Sets of rules and then punitive measures just reproduce unjust power dynamics.
…maybe the best sorts of response strategies are those that everyone can enact, not just an ‘authority’? Anyways, I’m still struggling with this part of the process.
Teaching in a way which implicitly discourages sexual harassment, by encouraging good communication between leads and follows.
– I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
– I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
3. Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
– I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
– I’m working up to addressing the more nebulous issue of sexual harassment by practicing on more concrete stuff like telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor
– Talking to and about men confronting other men. Because it’s men who are doing the dodgy stuff in most of these cases, and we need to ask men to take responsibility for their own actions. Whether those actions are harassment, or condoning/enabling harassment by not using their power to speak up.
Working on this, I’ve discovered that a bunch of words is next to useless. We need simple graphics, pictures and posters. Using a range of resources (the AFL’s response to sexual assault is particularly powerful and useful), I’m thinking that we need to add a few things to the prevention/response strategies. I’m considering making up a simple, powerful website and postcard outlining what’s ok, and what’s not. They have to have a light-hearted, fun vibe (because lindy hop), but they also have to be very useful and not too twee. The tone of these texts should suit the vibe of my business, but also give an idea of national and international lindy hop culture (as if there was such an homogenous thing!)
These two assets could work in concert with a poster or sign, and with a practical training program for teachers, door staff, and ‘safety officers’ (ie the people you go to when you need help).
Luckily, lindy hoppers have already gotten on to this. We actually have a discourse of ‘etiquette’, which is the way we manage and control social interactions in our scene. We also talk a lot about ‘floor craft’, which is another way of managing how we take care of ourselves and others on the dance floor. The basic message of both is ‘Look out for others or you won’t get any dances.” Lindy hop has a powerful shaming tool at its disposal, and we should make greater use of it.
I think we can just tweak these two sets of ‘rules’ a little to make them a bit more powerful and directly address sexual harassment and assault. A lot of dancers don’t want to address rape and sexual harassment explicitly because it’s a downer (and lindy hop is supposed to be all happy clappy all the time), and it’s a bit of a social taboo to talk about sex and sexual violence in an explicit way. And it’s really difficult to talk about sexual assault and violence without actually talking about breasts, vulvas, vaginas, penises, bottoms, and how we touch and use them.
Added to this are the broader social myths about women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, and men’s sexuality. The bottom line in responding to sexual harassment and assault is that you have to accept that it’s about power and violence more than it’s about sex and sexuality, and you have to accept that patriarchy exists. A tall order for people who ‘just want to dance’.
But I don’t want to reinvent the wheel when there’s fab stuff like this around:
This is an etiquette guide produced by Holy Lindy Land, the Israeli lindy hop community. Which of course you should know about, because they sent an open letter of peace and friendship to the lindy hoppers of Palestine, which makes me cry like a little baby with the love. (You can read more about the two scenes’ work in this lovely piece).
I like this poster because it does simple things like replace my awkward description
Avoid ‘boob swipes’, touching a partner’s bottom, groin, upper legs – you know the deal. If you accidentally do so, apologise immediately. If you do this repeatedly, you will be warned, if not ejected from the event.
I think that lindy hop could also do with some of the sharper edged humour that would help us get real about sexual harassment.
There was a most excellent swing memes thread on yehoodi years ago, where most of the images are sadly missing now :( I’m especially fond of Good Guy Greg.
And of course tumblr brings the gif with people like lindy hop problems.
But these are, of course, not ‘official’ responses to sexual harassment. They are very important, because they give us a way to comment on issues, and also to ‘talk back to power’ if we don’t think organisations are stepping up.
I’m thinking something by an artist like Tomeito would be pretty useful:
At any rate, I’m working on it. Slowly but surely…. :D
the SES (State Emergency Services) position sexual harassment as an occupational health and safety issue rather than a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘sexual issue’, and have some EXCELLENT training material available
AFL (Australian Football League) have Respect and Responsibility, a hardcore response to s.h. and assault which targets men (because it is a male-dominated sport), and uses the Australian discourses of ‘mateship’, ‘team’ and community responsibility (or club-loyalty) through the language of the sport (‘taking the tackle’ etc) in a powerful way. Their posters are great. I admit it, my Uses of History: Frankie as Teaching Tool in-class strategies are an attempt to do the same thing. To use the language and model of our most important and powerful cultural imagery as a strategy for dealing with sexual harassment.