Food and Dance; as ordinary as oxygen

Soul Food Junkies (broadcast version) from Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez on Vimeo.

This is a really great little docco. As you’ve probably figured out, one of my favourite ways of experiencing the places I visit is to see what people eat, how they eat it, and where they get it. I especially like ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ food – supermarkets, greengrocers, delis, markets. The places where people buy their everyday food.

Sitting here in Herrang, at a dance camp devoted to black dance history, I’m struck (once again – for the millionth time) by just how selective this ‘history’ is. It’s heavily vetted by middle class white people, and barely touches on the everyday lives of black people in the 20s/30s/40s, let alone today. One of the very real consequences of this, is that lindy hop and tap and all those other black dances are even more clearly separated from the black vernacular.

The other night there was a library talk about lindy hop, with the provocation: “lindy hop: a dance to preserve or develop?” All three of the people on the panel were white, middle class Swedes. I find this thought more than a little troubling. This was clearly a statement of ownership of black dance. By white business owners. I couldn’t attend, and frankly, I couldn’t quite bear the thought of another belaboured discussion where white people give endless excuses and reasons for why what they are doing is ok, because this one time a black guy told them so. To paraphrase an important movement in lindy hop today: the voices of black lindy hoppers matter. Time to stop talking and listen, white lindy hoppers.

Anyways, this documentary is about the way black families can both preserve and innovate, by focussing on community development (specifically in terms of addressing food deserts and access to ingredients in black communities, as well as cooking). Here, the cultural practices and products – cooking, eating and food – are clearly marked as central to black family life, and therefore of vital importance to black cultural life. This filmmaker makes it clear that stepping aside from the commodification of processed food and black eaters’ engagement with food only as consumers is a serious issue. Growing your own greens is as important as dancing your own dances and making your own music; it is soul food.

what even is 32 bar chorus v blues phrasing?

Swinging jazz is really formulaic and predictable. This is mostly because of the constraints of the recording industry: the 3 minute pop song is all that fitted on one side of a record. Which makes it great for improvising with. Live music is very different, and was very different.
This is partly why dancers should dance to live music: it’s less predictable, and you really have to pay attention, in case someone adds something.

This predictable formula is also why peeps get so shitty with DJs who play awkwardly phrased songs in comps: you have to really work hard to ignore the structure of a standard swing song.

I actually like to sit down and draw out the structure of a song if I’m thinking about choreographing or using it for a routine. It really helps me understand to see a ’32 bar chorus’ written out – that’s 16 lots of 8. Which is 4 phrases. You can teach that in an hour. My ‘thinking brain’ likes me to do this to help me become conscious of some things in a song. Especially with tap. But my ‘dancing brain’ gets confused and flustered if I try to count or think about the markers of phrases and choruses consciously, so when I’m dancing (esp social dancing), I don’t think ‘here comes the phrase!’ I listen to the music, and let the musicians tell me when a phrase is over or a chorus is beginning. eg a solo might go for a phrase, or a particular musical theme might go for a chorus.

The shim sham is 4 phrases (3 basic phrases + an added phrase), and that helps me think about the relationship between dancers and bands in the olden days. A dancer would get up and do a chorus, then bow out.

You can also hear it in a standard swing ‘pop’ song: the main ‘story’ of the song is in that chorus.
A really standard pop song will play 4 choruses, with some intro or outro stuff or perhaps a bridge or something somewhere.

If you’re listening to a nola type song, or something like Fats Waller’s Moppin And Boppin, you can clearly hear the choruses, with a final shout chorus:
– there’s an intro-type bit with drums (Fats shouts out “You want some more of that mess? Well here tis, Zutty take over – pour it on ’em!”) and then Zutty plays about 3 phrases (2.5 really).
– then the band kicks in with the main ‘theme’ of the song for a chorus, with everyone playing together sensibly.
– then there’s a chorus with lots of solos

– round about halfway Slam Stewart does 16 phrases (a chorus) on the bass with some humming.
– Then Zutty Singleton does a chorus on the drums.
– Then there’s a final chorus where everyone joins in, which ends up feeling a lot like a ‘shout chorus’. A shout chorus is a big, exciting end part, where all the musicians get crazy. If I’m DJing, I know that if I hear that shout chorus, I need to get my next song sorted.

Because it’s Fats Waller, that ‘starting sensibly then getting crazy’ vibe is a clever play on the predictable 32 bar chorus structure: he takes you on a journey.

All of this feels really nice and balanced:
– 4 choruses plus a shout chorus at the end and an intro at the beginning.

This is the structure that makes swinging jazz so nice to lindy hop to: it’s predictable. It means a dancer can step up with a band and take a chorus and know when/where to come in.

I’ve been doing some work with a band lately where I have to MC/narrate stuff during a song, and while I know all this with my brain, in the moment I get a bit flustered, so I watch the band leader who cues me with a nod. A band that plays head arrangements (vs using sheet music) develops a nonverbal language of nods and so on that cues each other in. There was actually a whole language of nonverbal cues that big bands used to use, but of this language isn’t used any more and is lost :(

Ways to learn this stuff:
– with paper and pen;

And, much more usefully, with your body, so you can turn off your counting brain and let it work on choreography or being creative:
– Dancing the shim sham to different songs. You figure out which songs are blues phrased pretty quickly :D And you realise why Ellington was so wiggedy wacked.
– Calling the freezes, slow motions, and dance! in a shim sham. It feels really natural do to it on the phrase, but a whole phrase at 120bpm is boring, so you do it at half way points.

Why should DJs play standards/favourites?

At Jazz BANG on the weekend, we set up a little story about jazz history and music. The band would play a song in a particular style, and the dancers would dance to it.

I just said to Andrew something like “Make it feel like this, in the 30s, swinging properly,” and I gestured 4 beats to the bar with even emphasis. And he figured out (because he is a genius) that I meant a standard 32 bar chorus type structure (ie 4×8 to the phrase) in swinging timing.
Then he played a standard – Honeysuckle Rose:

And because we all know Honeysuckle Rose (because it is a standard/favourite), the dancers could dance to it, even though they’d never heard the band play it before. Then when they were done (after about 4 phrases (or 16×8 or 32 bars), they’d leave the stage, and the band would play a final phrase or chorus to finish up.

And we did that about six times.

It’s only because we have a shared vocabulary that this could work. We had a shared set of jazz standards – the songs that DJs and bands play over and over – and a shared sense of timing and swing. This gave us the language to do an improvised performance.

So this is why DJs should play favourites. Not Lavender Coffin, so much, but Honeysuckle Rose, Jive at Five, Flying Home, Shiny Stockings, Tiger Rag, Sweet Georgia Brown, etc etc etc. It allows us to do improvised art over a shared structure.
Then end,
By Sam.

Clicker training and positive reinforcement

I’ve recently been pushing to teach lindy hop using only positive reinforcement.
When the students are doing an ‘experiment with these things please’ session in class (and they do a lot of this independent, self-guided learning in class), we used to watch until we saw common errors or patterns of messed up movement. Then we’d stop and correct the students, saying things like “Instead of doing this, do that.” I had been advised by a teacher friend (Shane McCarthy in Perth) never to ‘correct’ a student in class in front of the group because it’s embarrassing and trashes their morale. But it’s taken me until just this year to realise that I never need to correct a student again.

‘Correction’ is another word for ‘telling students they’re doing things wrong, that they’re wrong.’ And this is shit for morale. Both students’ and ours. Because if you’re going to tell someone they suck, you feel terrible. Unless you are a somewhat shit person. I used to go home from class worried that I’d said the wrong thing, or taught them something bullshit.
Until I noticed that when I said, “Oh, you know what I saw that I really liked? ….” and then pointed out where someone specific had done something really nice, or in general when I saw something I liked, the students felt great, and I felt wonderful.

In our teaching pairs, we used to have a rule for reducing the amount of time we spent teaching: say one thing for follows, and one thing for leads. Thing is, these things were almost always ‘tips’ or corrections. So we were effectively making a rule: ‘say one thing to trash the follows, then one thing to trash the leads.’ Boo!
But then we started encouraging each other to say “Something that I saw that I liked…” And YES. The world got really really good. Yay!

So this year I made a rule for myself, which I’ve then asked all my teaching partners to do when the teach with me: if you want to guide students towards a particular behaviour, wait until you see a student or students doing that behaviour (or on the road to that behaviour), and then say, “I saw some people doing X. It was really nice.” You be very specific about what you saw, and if you think that student can handle the attention, name them: “I saw X and Y dancing away, then get into a tangle, and you know what they did? X said, “Can we stop for a tick so I can try again?’ And they stopped and chilled for a second, grooved til they found their timing, then they started it again. That was a really cool way of dealing with a mess.” If you see a bunch of people doing a thing, say that: “I saw a bunch of people doing X and I loved it.”

Or if you see ALL of them doing something – tell them! I tend to gush on this one: “Oh! That looked so nice and _grooving_ because you all took a bit of time to make friends with the music before you got going, and then you kept that groove!” I also like to point out how people have managed their own mistakes: “I really liked the way you guys started dancing, and it was nice, but a bit square” [demonstrate timing], “And then the music started, you all heard the musicians, and you all changed your dancing so it swung” [demonstrate swinging timing].

So now my rule is: no ‘corrections’, no ‘tips’. Just positive affirmations. If you don’t see the behaviour you need or want to see, wait. Because they’ll get there. If they don’t, then you need to show them again. And that’s ok.
Key to this is that you are looking at students looking for ways in which they are wonderful, rather than ways in which they are rubbish. It just made teaching so wonderful.

But let’s look more at this idea of positive reinforcement replacing correction in teaching.

Today, I read a book called ‘Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs’ by Karen Pryor, because we’re trying to teach our nutty, somewhat panicky rescue dog a few tricks, but also so she feels more confident and happy when we’re out, and when we’re around the house. This book is just lovely. Mostly because clicker training rewards good behaviour rather than punishing or correcting ‘bad’ behaviour. It also encourages you – the trainer – to look for goodness in your subject, not badness or errors. And hence, brings good vibes. As the book says

Once you get used to thinking the clicker way, you are much more likely to notice good behavior and reward it, instead of giving your attention to a child only when it’s doing something wrong.

More importantly for trainers, it’s much easier to maintain preferred behaviour with this method than with “physically correcting erroneous behaviour”.

Let me just note that point: it encourages teachers to actively look for good behaviour. It changes the teacher.

How does it work?
First, you encourage learning-by-exploring.
When your doggo does a behaviour close to what you want, you click your clicker and give it a treat. So if I want Frank to sit, if she stops, she gets a click and a treat. If she starts to lower her rear haunches, I click and she gets a treat. If she actually sits – click! And treat bonanza (lots of treats)! Important: you only click once, exactly as you see the desired behaviour. They then associate the click with approval for what they are doing _at that time_. You never punish or correct or tell them off. If they deviate substantially from what you want, you put the clicker and treats away. No more treats.

So we have the second point: you encourage learning by approval and positive reinforcement, not correction and punishment/disapproval.
I’ve heard of positive reinforcement, of course, but I’d never really thought about what I was doing as a teacher as positive reinforcement.

The goal: the doggo learns that their behaviour gets you to click and give you treats. So they start thinking: what can I do that will make the human click? And they start experimenting.

You can immediately see how this works for lindy hop: what can I do that will make my partner smile, and dance really well making for a good dance and fun time for both of us? You can also see that this approach forces you to shift the learners’ focus from you, the teacher, to each partners. Ha. Yes. Your ego will need to be set aside for minute!

But this approach also works for teaching: what sort of things can I try to that will get me a good result? What interesting things can we do to make the students and us happy? How much fun can we actually have in class? And I tell you, friends: it’s addictive. If you can have a little bit of fun once, you suddenly think LET’S HAVE A LOT OF FUN ALL THE TIME.
This encourages a happy, creative pupper, but also happy, creative dancer. Ta da! Lindy hop!

This book extends this approach to teaching other animals besides dogs (it was actually developed with dolphins), and then to teaching children. Apparently this method works particularly well with humans learning physical skills, because it’s so quick. Not only are you giving positive reinforcement, but you’re also physically making a nonverbal sound (clicking the clicker) when you see the behaviour you want. And retention of these skills is permanent, with learning happening twice as fast as with verbal instructions.

The question then becomes: can we use a clicker in a lindy hop class? If not, what non-vocal substitution would work?
As a clear example, when you learn African dance with drummers in class, the drummers signal a change in the exercise or step or rhythm with a very clear rhythmic sound. And if you’re doing a nonverbal warm up like i-go, you-go, the teacher moves on from one rhythm or one shape to another when you get it right. Hmmm. Close, but not quite right.

I have noticed myself that if I use words to signal my approval or to signal ‘Yes! you are on track!’ to students, the language itself interrupts their processing of information. This is no doubt because, as we know, humans can’t/aren’t much good at processing words and physical lead/follow information at the same time.
So let’s look at another example from black culture (which is where of course lindy hop began): the call-and-response “Amen!” of a congregation responding to a preacher. It is a word, but it’s used so often that it has become more of a ‘sound’ than an actual Word. It means ‘yes!’ and ‘I hear you!’ and ‘praise that/you!’
Even within a mainstream white culture, women talking in groups use non-verbal signals of approval to encourage speakers in conversation: the raised eyebrow, the exclamation of breath, a laugh-sound.

What sort of nonlingual verbal cues can we use?

The other key element in clicker training is to do with the trainers: you learn to

respond in new ways. You become used to the idea that behavior needs to be built in small pieces, not in big chunks. You stop expecting too much, too soon, and just look for what you can reinforce – and so in fact you get more results, and better.
If you see a behavior you don’t like, …instead of rushing in to prevent it or stop it, you take it as a training opportunity: what is it this learner needs to know? What’s missing? What can I add that would replace this bad behavior?… you have a better way – reinforcing what you like, instead of attacking what you don’t.
…The experience can lead to less stress and more fun in life in general.

This is another approach that we’ve really jumped onto in our teaching. The idea of slowly building up skills in pieces. So instead of starting a class by saying, “Today we will learn the swing out!” and then proceeding to show a move, then break it into pieces, then map it out, then have them do each bit, we start with a related foundational skill. We need a few things for swing outs: a sense of timing (ie the beat), a rhythm (ie a way of moving through space predictably), and a partner. To work with a partner, we need to know how to touch them, how to communicate with them (to know what they want/like and to tell them what we want/like), and to know how they feel the music.

So we begin with the first part: how do we move our bodies? Then we move on to the next part: how do we dance with a partner? Then we get them using all these elements (rhythm, shared beat, partnering skills, movement, etc) to do a simple task – move around the room randomly, experimenting. We ask them, “What helps? What makes this easier? What was the funnest part?”
Then we ask them to do a specific task: to dance a circle. But we literally say, “Now look here.” We show them. They watch. Then we say, “Please give your best approximation of this.” They do it. Boom circles. This has taught them not only a specific move, but it’s also taught them to experiment and try. And they get rewarded for that. But the move itself also teaches them to feel and experiment with rotational momentum… or, in human words, to feel that wonderful spinny roundy feeling.
Then we say, “Please let go half way.” And they basically recreate throwing a ball on a string. A swing out. And you give them TREAT BONANZA. Both in terms of praise, but you also point out: now you have a very fun move. And you set them loose to play with it to music.

All this plus a couple of jazz steps and warms ups and things is our first class. They have learnt a swing out. But they have learnt a million other skills as well as this one move. And the skills are more important.
For us, as teachers, we’ve learnt that a swing out isn’t a ‘thing’ that you give a student. It’s a thing that they discover through guided experimentation.

You want to keep doing positive reinforcement because it gives them the confidence to try, and to make mistakes, and then to see what happens when they do it in this way or that way. Which is, of course, how the swing out was born historically.

Clicker training in brief

– click the behaviour you want, exactly when it happens
– reward/treat after you click
– only work positively: reward what you want, or actions that get closer to what you want; never punish
– work in incremental steps towards a bigger goal

Key elements of clicker training:
– encourage the learner to experiment with all sorts of things until they figure out what behaviour will get a click (and a treat)
– you, the teacher, have to look actively for things to reward/click. This often means the learner does things you don’t expect, which gets them closer to the goal
– you, the teacher, get more flexible and learn more  
– the learner is learning experiment with doing all sorts of things with the goal of changing _your_ (the teacher’s) behaviour (ie to get you to click)

It is epic fun for everyone, because you focus on positive outcomes and reinforcement, rather than correcting and punishing.

Interesting thing:
The clicker is absolutely key because it is an aural, nonverbal cue. It gets twice as fast learning than a verbal cue. Because it side steps the longer word-processing-learning of verbal cues. It’s _faster_ because your brain doesn’t need to untangle the words. Your brain is faster with nonverbal cues.

It also works on doggos.

Challenge: clicking is kind of harsh, socially.

An example of a pretty structured tagteaching (which uses clicker training).

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this fit with our teaching ethos and values?
I strongly believe that teachers should be guides on students’ learning journeys. People who provide a space and some structure for learning and experimentation. This means dismantling a top-down hierarchy and replacing it with a student-centred learning space. In the case of lindy hop, this literally means getting teachers out of the middle of the circle, and giving students permission to use the entire dance floor.

It also means that I think we need to give students more responsibility in class. Make them responsible for finding the beat, counting themselves in, knowing when to stop or start a sequence, having the skills to speak and work respectfully with partners and class mates. Rather than funnelling all this work and communication through the teacher.

It doesn’t mean that we leave students rudderless, or that we let our classes become a chaotic jumble. On the contrary, classes need to be thoroughly planned out and structured. That structure might change (will change, probably :D) during the hour, but it should be thoughtful change. Teachers should be responsive to students’ needs, using their repertoire of teaching tools to address students’ needs and interests and willing to change and adapt their teaching.

Most of my thinking about class planning and structure and goals I’ve learnt from talking to Sylwia Bielec and Adrian Warnock-Graham from Montreal. I’ve never met them in person, but they’ve both been endlessly generous and patient with teaching materials and advice. I’ve also learnt a lot from Rikard Ekstrand and Jenny Deurell from Sweden, who are very thoughtful, gentle teachers who combine seriously old school content with modern pedagogic practice. I did my first tap jams with Tommy Waddelton last year at Herräng, and it blew my mind. His jams were the ultimate exercise is talk-less, dance-more teaching, taking the I-Go You-Go model to incredible heights. As a student, it was exciting, stimulating, creative, inspiring and FUN. As a teacher, it was truly impressive to see this approach in action with such a disparate group of dancers. Ramona Staffeld remains one of my greatest teaching influences. She works in the real spirit of historic jazz dance, but with modern sensibilities. eWa Burek and Lennart Westerlund have also been very important to my teaching practice. Lennart in particular opened my eyes to the idea of rhythm-first dancing, and first demonstrated that students don’t need to be counted in. And Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg are my ongoing teaching inspiration, again combining thorough pedagogic theory and practice with historic influence and creativity. All of these teachers put music first. Jazz music.

Tell me and I will surely forget. Show me and I might remember. But make me do it, and I will certainly understand.
— Old Chinese proverb

(Quote from a teaching resource provided by Sylwia.)

This approach is echoed in the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ model that I’ve seen used in teaching kids about the environment. I can’t remember the name of the documentary, but in this project, they had the kids learn about an issue, try it out, then teach the entire group (including adults) in a big group session. They’d found that this engagement helped kids become and feel responsible for environmental education.

I really like this model:

  1. See one (teachers demo i-go, you-go)
  2. Do one (teacher lead i-go, you-go)
  3. Teach/lead one (they take turns being the caller in partnered i-go, you-go).

I mean, lindy hop basically is i-go, you-go, right?

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this exercise scale up for more experienced students?

With the intermediate group after that one, we taught the same class structure:

1. the big apple was faster and harder (I led that one and fucked it up royally. PRACTICE!)

2. Then I-go, You-go with more complex rhythms.

3. Then social dancing lindy, with pauses to ask them to dance as though they’re still playing I-go, You-go.

4. Then we asked them to add on to their ‘basic’ rhythm with a stomp off on &8.

5. Then we worked on a rhythmic variation/shape thingy on 7812 of a swing out. This taught connection stuff, but also required them to stop thinking in 8 counts and start treating a dance like one long rhythm.

6. Then we taught a partnered solo jazz sequence we stole from Norma and Frankie. But they had to lead it and follow it. We looked at how close you stand to your partner, how you can lead a rhythm without touching someone (ie how to do I-go, You-go :D), how OGs used specific rhythmic sequences over and over again, so they developed a shared repertoire, etc. We were really STRICT about them all really dancing these rhythms. No mumbling their way through.

7. Then we asked them to mash all this stuff together.
This bit was wonderful: stomp off &8, clear basic rhythms (time steps), rhythmic variations that may or may not sync with your partner’s, and then these shared open position solo sequences.

Class goals (ie why we used I-go, You-go and the other exercises in this order):
This is my current bugbear: WHY do people stop dead on 3&4? On 8? For breaks? Why do they divide a dance into 8 count blocks?

We wanted to:
– Preserve historic sequences and steps;
– Get them to really partner dance in open position with jazz stuff;
– Use the call and response model to make their lindy hop more rhythmically precise;
– Really engage with the music as a long piece of rhythm, not lots of little 8 count segments.

I’m also really keen on leaders really thinking ahead and being very clear in what they’re about to lead, rhythmically. The leaders have to really LEAD. This is where I don’t really dig ambidancestrous stuff, because I think that leading and following are different roles. To really LEAD, a leader/caller needs to engage their muscles in a very specific way. It requires we engage our bodies and brains. We have to be really clear and precise. Which incidentally engages our cores and makes us easier to follow/lead. And that means making rhythmic sequences and shapes very clear and specific, and always being ready to do the next thing.

It was epic fun.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

The I-go, You-go game is a tap exercise we’ve appropriated for our lindy hop classes and use in lots of different ways. The game involves a caller/leader who claps or dances a step or rhythm, and is then followed by the rest of the group/a partner, who repeats back that same sequence in the same timing.
The game is fun because the follower repeats back the rhythm immediately after the leader, without pause, and the leader then begins a new rhythm immediately afterwards. So you’re dancing back to back, in time, with no gaps or time to stop and fuss.
The sequences can be a bar long, two bars, a phrase. Whatever works for you and your group. Obviously the shorter the easier (though a tap bar is a lot more complex than a lindy hop bar :D ). If we keep the tap roots of the exercise in mind, the little sequence should be repeated – so two bards (8 counts), where the sequence is repeated is the best option. For tap.

But the game is wonderful because its simplicity allows you to vary it to meet your students’ needs. Or your partner’s and your needs.

For tappers, this is a good intro to tap jams. For lindy hoppers, it’s a good intro to lindy hop – partnered jazz dancing.

We have been using this game as a core part of our beginner (and now higher level) lindy hop classes for about two months. It’s successful not only for students’ learning, but also for our own learning, as teachers and dancers. I like it because it embodies the call and response of lindy hop, and in fact, we now present lindy hop as ‘a long call and response game’ to our beginners. This is a nice way to get around the political issues of using ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ as titles. Though we still use those terms too :D

From a musical perspective, you can listen to a pair playing I-go, You-go, and hear it as an AABB phrase structure. And when you begin to think of the game like this, you can imagine a million other variations for teaching other lead/follow and musical skills. It’s also a MASSIVE amount of fun. Students enjoy it because it feels like fun, and the quick pace means you don’t dwell on mistakes or errors, you just move on immediately to the next challenge.

What rhythms do you use when you’re the teacher leading the whole group?

Depends on the point of the exercise. With the total beginners in this class, we wanted them to just use one rhythm (step step triple step). Why?
– To really make them feel comfortable with this as a time step (so comfortable they get bored and long for improvisation or something different).
– They learn to hear the difference between a rhythm clapped straight or swung.
– We wanted them to feel confident in the rhythm so they’d then experiment with shapes, direction, other parts of their body.
– The main point is that they really focus on their partner: a ‘win’ is where the person responding gets it ‘right’. So the caller understands that being very clear and deliberate is the point (ie you don’t try to trick your partner or be unnecessarily complex).
– I was fascinated to see that after starting this way, they incline their body towards their partner, then keep this orientation in closed/open. They really focus on their partner. So you don’t need to say things like ‘look at your partner’ or ‘check in with your partner to see how they’re going’. They’re already doing it.
– I learnt this from Rikard and Jenny in the Herräng teachers’ track, but I-go, You-go is a tap exercise. Except in tap you have to reproduce rhythm, pitch, specific part of the foot, AND shape.
– This game is also an exercise in mindfulness. So we begin with a big apple warm up (a fun, simpler I-go, You-go game, then consolidate and concentrate the same skills in the teacher led and then partnered versions. By the time they get to actual partner dancing, they are really using these skills intently. That gives them the ‘take care of your partner’ and ‘take care of the music’ elements of lindy hop. When you shift to closed position for gliding, you can say ‘we’re still playing the game. But now you can’t seethe whole of your partner. Use your sense of touch, and the shared sense of timing from the music’. It’s better not to actually articulate that stuff, but to just get them to learn by doing.
– This game also teaches you to learn-by-watching (eg “I’ll do it three times then you do it,”) so you don’t need to break stuff down or talk a lot when tackling specific moves.

The I-go, You-go game can also be played with the teacher using different rhythms (and you match complexity to skills). But you need to be constantly assessing their progress. Repeat something slower if they don’t get it. Do a straight version then a swing version if they’re flattening out the rhythm. Get more complex as they get better. Push them until it gets too hard for them to do successfully (so they recognise challenge), etc etc.

A lot of tap teachers teach whole classes like this. It is FANTASTIC fun. No talking, just call and response.

When they glide with rhythm, we do ask them to do their ‘basic’ rhythm (the one we worked on), but we don’t really mind if they do other stuff too. We basically want them to learn how it feels to move with deliberate rhythm across the floor attached to another person. Maintaining perfect rhythm is just a lovely extra.

Why I want to hang onto gender when we talk about race in lindy hop

As part of the ongoing discussion about race and lindy hop, Shelby (a black American man) asked (in response to a comment about how the dance community’s response to race differs/shares with its response to rape and sexual assault):

So can we stay on the topic at hand please. Just once would like a discussion on race not have another topic though pressing be brought into the discussion unless they actually crossover to prevent tangents

I responded like this:

I think they’re all linked. We can’t talk about race in America without talking about class. We can’t talk about race in vintage fashion culture without also talking about gender and class (and sexuality). It’s important to note that ‘gender norms’ in mainstream American lindy hop culture involve race. As an extreme example, I was reading an article the other day pointing out why the American second amendment is inherently about race and a part of slavery. In that setting, we have to talk about class and race if we want to understand why white men in America are over-represented in mass shootings in schools.

I think it’s super, super important to identify how ‘idealised female bodies’ are ethnicised: white skin, straight hair, long clear lines created by shoe choices and lots of pointed toes, etc etc. And how clothing choices emphasise particular aesthetics and shapes.
Joann Kealiinohomoku wrote a great article about ballet in 1983 which is directly relevant to this conversation. She pointed out how ballet – specifically the ballerina’s body and movement – are shaped by ethnicised notions of beauty and gender. She pointed out how ‘whiteness’ is constructed by particular ways of moving and particular body shapes and aesthetics.

If we are going to make lindy hop more tenable for poc, we need to deconstruct how lindy hop is ethnicised, where the dominant ethnicity is ‘whiteness’. We have to deconstruct whiteness. We have to think about ‘whiteness’ as ethnicity. As culture. Not as some neutral ‘norm.’ And that means not only talking about historic black dancers in class; but looking at how vintage fashion aesthetics contribute to contemporary gender norms; how dance step ‘trends’ favour particular rhythms, which reflect vernacular spoken language; and how the cost of events limits the participation of people who don’t have disposable income (class).

I don’t expect you, personally, to take on this work, but as a white woman, I feel I have a responsibility to see how privilege works in the context of patriarchy. I need to unravel all the threads, and see which ones contribute to which knots. Then i can start untangling and undoing patriarchy.
Working within a feminist framework (in my background) means asking how race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, etc all work to privilege some people and marginalise others. The generation of feminists who came after me talk about this in terms of intersectionality. For me, it’s a way of saying “How come the work of white feminists of the second generation (1960s) didn’t turn out to be so useful for black women?”
My approach is informed by black feminists and feminists of colour, who clearly state: gender is not my first point of engagement with power and injustice; my race is. I can dig that. But I feel that as a white woman, I owe it to my black sisters to take on some of this labour while they’re getting on with addressing issues like school lunches and literacy rates in black communities.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

More references on this topic.

More talk about consent and blues dance: the consequences of trauma on discourse

In a continuation of the discussion begun by Damon’s post, Kelly posted a lengthy, intelligent piece on facebook. This one was only visible to friends (not everyone), so I won’t copy and paste it here. But she did begin some interesting discussion about being a white woman engaging with this topic. I chimed in there in a less careful tone than I would on Damon’s post, as I know Kelly better, and I wouldn’t splash my feels all over the page of someone I don’t know.

Anyhoo, this is how I responded:

While i can get behind the statement, ‘Some historic blues dance styles are defined by a close embrace’, i cannot endorse the line that walking through the door at a blues dance event _is_ giving consent for a closed embrace.
Whatever the history of a dance, drawing an equivalence between those two points is rubbish.

I’m also very unkeen to just recreate the past. Honour our history, yes, but i’m not just going to give a blanket ok for wholesale reenactment of ‘history’.
I go to dances with my brain and eyes open. One of the most important parts of the cultural transmission of dances between generations, communities, and cultures, is adapting them to make them socially relevant. That’s why canel walk in 1930 and camel walk in 2018 aren’t exactly the same.

So i’m saying it bluntly: even if the historical ‘truth’ was that you (women, it is implied), give up the right to withdrawl consent at blues partirs, i am NOT ok with that now. And i do not want to revive or preserve that little nugget. And i sure as shit won’t tolerate retrosexist bros who use this ‘history’ to enable contravening women’s rights.

No punches pulled there, right?
But I’m finding it so difficult to stay chilled on this topic.

A couple of black men responded, but again I won’t cut and paste their comments here, as they weren’t publicly visible. When a post and comments aren’t public, we assume that the authors assume a degree of anonymity or ‘safety’.

But I did continue, after some thought, with the following post. I think it best sums up by difficulties in dealing with this topic. It’s so, so hard to unpack privilege and assumptions about race and ethnicity when your brain is being pounded by the effects of vicarious trauma.
Lately the topic of intergenerational trauma has entered Australian discourse about indigenous Australian rights and compensation. Part of me would like to talk/write about the physical consequence of trauma and violence (and living with the threat of violence) for people trying to participate in public discourse. Basically: it’s fucking hard to be calm and coherent when your brain is pouring adrenaline through you. And I think that this is why we need allies. We need people who have the privilege and advantage of not being physically threatened by patriarchy to do some heavy lifting.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I get so upset about this particular point. I understand with my brain, but then my emotions just come raging in.
I think it’s an old school trigger. I have heard men use exactly this argument -“It’s a blues hold”, “Relax and go with it,” “This is how you do blues dance” – when a woman asks them not to hold them so tight it hurts, not to touch their breasts or groin, or gets so upset they cry and leave the dance. I’m dealing with these men in my local dance scene at the moment.

So when I hear just the beginning of this sentence, it’s like a switch gets flicked in my head, and I hear those women literally crying, ashamed, and telling me what the man said as he held her down and groped or assaulted her. Repeatedly. “Relax. It’s a blues hold.” It’s line built for gaslighting.

I know I feel this way because I’m dealing with vicarious trauma from working on so much s.a. and harassment stuff. But my brain isn’t in control here. My emotions are.

At this stage, I simply can’t accept this approach. As I type this, I’m starting to feel a bit distressed. But right now, I’m 100% not ok with even getting anywhere near supporting or even taking apart this argument to see how it works.

I’ve also been wondering: am I doing some low-key racism here? Am I policing a topic for my own privilege? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve heard white male offenders appropriate the ‘this is authentic black history’ argument to justify serious harassment, as social dancers, and as teachers, _teaching_ other men that this sort of behaviour is legit. And that makes me super, super angry.

So I’m going to sit on this for a while until I don’t get so seriously triggered. Then revisit it.

When do you give consent: blues dance and historical context

Damon Stone, a high profile black male blues dancer recently made this post on facebook:

Blues dance post following –

Asking for consent before dancing in close embrace. If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace.

Like all other activities and aspects of consent, such consent can be withdrawn at *any* time, but if you do not want to dance in close embrace with someone politely refuse the dance. If you don’t want to dance in close embrace with anyone, then, respectfully, find a different dance.

EDIT: This is assuming two things, 1) that the person is dancing correctly, 2) that not every single blues idiom dance is a close embrace dance, but blues idiom dances use close embrace as their starting position.

I read this post in light of the recent (and most excellent) comments by black women about white blues dancers (which I note in my post ‘Stop Dancing’), and ongoing about how to negotiate consent and avoid sexual assault and harassment in the contemporary blues, balboa, and lindy hop scenes.

My response was as follows.

I think there are a few issues here for me as a dancer and observer:
– One is the history of blues (and we are talking about a dance that includes a very close embrace – just as tango does),
– One is the different current cultural contexts of blues music and dance around the world today,
– And one is the different notions of consent and negotiated physical contact in different cultures today and then.

I think this statement is problematic:

If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace


Because people take this statement and this concept at face value. As a relatively experienced dancer, I know what it means: if I go to a blues party at Damon’s house, I should expect some pretty close physical contact. I’ll be able to tell a bro or a woman to back off if I’m not ok with what they do, but I should expect a close embrace (vs no physical contact at all, as at a tap jam).

But an awful lot of people take this sort of dance etiquette and map it onto their relationships throughout the dance world. An awful lot of men and women are trained to expect this: that a woman or man must say yes to a dance invite, a close embrace, a partner doing as they like with our body. Because an awful lot of people don’t know how to touch other humans with respect.
In my world (fuck, in Trump’s world), men expect to touch women as they like, women expect that men will try to touch them without permission, and learn to avoid that in a non-confrontational way. Men learn to exploit this and exploit women.
So when we go to a blues dance, some people need to be told, explicitly: you don’t get to do what you like to your partner’s body. You have to ask permission.

I’m rolling my eyes too. For fuck’s sake.

Blues as a historically-rooted dance comes from black communities, where notions of how to touch and when to touch and who to touch were something black kids learnt growing up, engaged with as teens, and then continued to negotiate and renegotiate as adults.
These ideas of ‘appropriate’ touch, how to ask for permission to touch, how to reject touch and so on weren’t monolithic across black communities in the US. I mean, there’s that iconic story that Frankie Manning told about imitating his mother dancing by dancing with a broom and getting into big trouble. The implication here is that dancing that way was something adults (sexually mature people) did. And they certainly didn’t do it across generations (part of his mother’s reaction was no doubt to do with the fact that Frankie was watching his mother, not some random woman, in an intimate embrace).

So we have generational differences then. We also have generational differences now. And young women regularly police the boundaries of when old is ‘too old’ to dance intimately (and sensuously) with (“eee gross! He is too OLD for you!”)

Then of course, we have different regional differences (country v city, city v city, etc), and different class differences (eg the super close intimate dancing has long been associated with ‘low’ culture, and wasn’t appropriate for huge, cross-generational dances in ‘polite’ company).

In all those spaces, people figured out what was appropriate and what wasn’t. A good slap would tell a man if he’d crossed a boundary. From that woman, or her brother or father. And then a series of stern frowns, lectures, and ‘punishments’ from a world of aunties and grandmas and mothers.
But, for many dancers today, blues dancing isn’t situated in that close community network. Their aunty is never going to know what they did at that party and come after them with a broom. There isn’t that inter-generational education about how to touch and be touched on the dance floor.

Blues dancing today also exists in lots of different cultural and social contexts, with all sorts of attendant social mores and modes of behaviour. We are at this moment having very public discussions about the role of race, cultural heritage and who gets to police these values. Who gets to speak in these discussions, who gets listened to, and whose words last are subject to broader socio-political forces.

I’m saying this not to be patronising (I know you all know all this), I’m saying it to signal that I’m aware of these issues. I need to talk context, and I am aware of the bigger issues, and the intensely personal issues at hand.

But I think that one of the voices I’m not hearing in many discussions about blues dance (and how to touch a partner on the dance floor) is black women’s. I think that Cierra’s Obsidian Tea piece about dating is really useful here, for me (as a white woman in another country). It says, ‘Hey, mate, your rules of physical intimacy may not apply here. Pay attention.’ So I’m paying attention.

BUT there is also an ongoing contribution from black women talking about their rights to decide how and when they give consent, and to whom. As a full-on example, a queer black woman at a blues dance not automatically give consent for a man to hold her in a closed embrace. Nor does a straight black woman. They might not need to give and receive verbal consent, but they certainly have a right to set boundaries about their bodies.

So I figure: in this moment, when we are renegotiating blues and lindy hop, we don’t assume anything about how we touch other people’s bodies. I might go to a tango practica expecting to be held and to hold in a very close embrace. But each dance that I have in that session will involve some degree of negotiation. I might invite a close embrace, but I might also reject it. I might end a dance early. I have a right to do all these things with no notice, both on and off the dance floor. How I do this depends on the traditions of that scene, and my own social skills (or lack thereof).

In my culture (white woman in urban Australia), women are strongly discouraged from publicly embarrassing men. To protect their own bodies, but more to protect the reputations and status of that man. So we are trained not to slap a handsy man on the dance floor (though goddess knows I’d like to). We’re trained not to say “STOP THAT” to that handsy man on the dance floor. We’re trained not to move away from that handsy man on the dance floor.
And I don’t know what a black woman my age at a party in Chicago would do in those situations either. I’d probably watch and learn, and ask my female friends questions, and figure it out. But I’m in Australia, and I’m white. So I’m figuring it out long distance. And this is why I really really want to see black women talking about how they do this stuff.

We might sensibly assume that if we go to a blues dance or event that is advertised (or described) as a party in the sense of the historic blues idiom, that we might be doing some close embracing on the dance floor.
(which I think is your original point, Damon?)

BUT I think that we should never assume that we can embrace someone or touch someone without asking for and receiving consent to do so. And to continue to check in and to see that our partner is ok with this. And being prepared to end the dance ourselves if our partner isn’t into it, or if our partner wants to end this.